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December 31, 2012

HOWEY: Tweaks for the Indiana Debate Commission

Hoosier voters are extremely fortunate. It may seem like a very minor point, but we have the Indiana Debate Commission, a group of journalists and academics that formed in 2007 to provide a fitting forum for decision making in gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

The Oct. 23 debate in New Albany provided the critical moment in the U.S. Senate race when Republican Richard Mourdock uttered his now infamous “God intends” rape remark that ultimately altered his race against Democrat Joe Donnelly and Libertarian Andy Horning.

And it almost didn’t happen. Donnelly told me after the election that he believed until the 11th hour that Mourdock wouldn’t participate. He was preparing to debate Horning alone.

In early August, the Missouri U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin made his “legitimate rape” remark, dooming his campaign. For much of the next two months, Mourdock would only appear at GOP campaign events or was in the company of either Indiana Republican Chairman Eric Holcomb, or a Republican U.S. Senator coming into the state to salvage what had become a closely contested race. Indiana Democrats would liken it to “adult supervision” for Mourdock, who faced a real dilemma: duck the Debate Commission events and endure about 10 news cycles of “Republican stiffs debate” headlines or go ahead with what is now becoming tradition and participate.

Ultimately, Mourdock decided at the final deadline — about two weeks before the first debate — to participate. The rest is history. While the two Senate debates drew only a tiny share of the statewide TV audience, Mourdock’s blunder thoroughly permeated the public mindset.

In a Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll conducted five days after the New Albany debate, 87 percent of Hoosiers were aware of the remark, which was transmitted in viral fashion via Facebook, Twitter and other social media instantaneously, as well as mainstream news coverage.

So the Debate Commission provided Hoosier voters with vital information the Republican nominee tried to duck. The lessons here are that candidate participation is now becoming traditional and expected, and candidates cannot hide. If they do, voters should question whether they have the proper temperament to serve.

I do, however, have some suggestions for the Indiana Debate Commission to ponder and build on the tradition now established:

    

1. Provide different formats. The three gubernatorial debates and two in the U.S. Senate race used the identical format in all five events: opening statements, citizen questions with responses and rebuttals, a “Lincoln-Douglass” debate sequence, and then closing statements.

This format is an invitation for sound bites —- which already dominate the campaigns via their TV and radio ads — and became duplicative. In multiple-debate series, a varied format should include one used by Rev. Rick Warren in 2008 when he conducted two extensive “conversations” with Barack Obama and John McCain. The commission should consider a series of different formats to prompt the candidates into different types of responses and at varied lengths.

2. The use and treatment of journalists. The citizen questions are valuable and should be included in at least one debate in each contest. But journalists were minimized during the entire process. The biggest beef here is that the press corps was confined to a “filing room” outside of the main venue and couldn’t witness any audience reaction.

Journalists cover the day-to-day campaign, know the issues and should be allowed to pose questions to candidates during the debate sequence during at least one event. For instance, the Senate race was engulfed by more than $20 million of outside money, but there wasn’t a single question on campaign finance.

As it stands right now, journalists can only ask questions after the event. So the public doesn’t get to witness the journalists questioning the candidates, and the journalists don’t get to witness the public during the debate. The commission should stream the debate and press conference online.

3. The involvement of the Libertarians. Early last summer at an Associated Press Managing Editors event, the Libertarians pressed newspaper and radio executives for more extensive coverage of their candidates. But Libertarians have no power base in the Statehouse or Congress, never having elected one of their candidates to either.

I thought many of gubernatorial candidate Rupert Boneham’s debate remarks were nonsensical and were devoid of any plausible public policy. Libertarians are “playing politics.” They don’t raise money, build organizations that place their candidates in a position to win. Horning essentially admitted this during the press conference following the second Senate debate.

I’m not saying bar the Libertarian candidate. The debate commission could raise the bar. They could insist that a Libertarian get at least 10 percent in the previous election, or in a majority of public opinion polls prior to an invitation deadline date. That might incentivize the Libertarians to act like a real party.

4. All debate images and should be available for fair use. When Mourdock made his rape remark, it made national news. When Democrat Super PACs used it, the Debate Commission cried foul, saying that use of the images and sound violated participation agreements. This violates “fair use” doctrine. Anything said or seen in an Indiana Debate Commission event should be fair game for use in any form or format going forward.

— This columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol

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