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April 15, 2012

STATE OF THE STATE: The debate that wasn't

INDIANAPOLIS — If U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and State Treasurer Richard Mourdock were contestants on the TV show, “American Idol,” they would have been eliminated by the media “judges” watching their performances during their one and only debate last week.

For an hour inside a broadcast studio at an Indianapolis public television station, the two men talked about tax policy, foreign affairs, the impact of ethanol on gas prices,  and other issues not easily reduced to pop lyrics and a snappy beat.

It wasn’t the grudge match that reporters, including me, had been expecting from the six-term incumbent Lugar and his intra-party Republican challenger.

We generally want much more entertainment in our politics. It’s much easier to write good copy that way. 

It’s not that the race has been dull. Both candidates are spending millions of dollars in other people’s money to woo voters before the May 8 primary.

They’re spending a lot of that cash trying to convince voters to loathe their opponent. Whomever wins will likely spend a bundle more trying to get voters to loathe the presumptive Democrat nominee, Rep. Joe Donnelly, before the November vote.

But last week’s debate wasn’t about fear and loathing. It wasn’t supposed to be entertaining. It was designed to be informative and, given the limits of a one-hour debate, it came much closer to that goal.

Max Jones, editor of the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute [one of the CNHI newspapers for which I write] is also president of the Indiana Debate Commission, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that hosted the Lugar-Mourdock match up.

Before the debate took place, he wrote an editorial that ran in newspapers across the state about why the race is significant, and he offered the debate as one way for voters to cut through the campaign noise.

“For decades, Lugar has been politically untouchable,” Jones wrote. “His party has been solidly behind him, and Democrats haven’t been able to muster a challenge. In fact, six years ago, when Lugar sought his fifth term, the Democrats did not even field a candidate.

“Times change,” Jones continued. “The emergence of the Tea Party in 2010 created an ideological struggle among Republicans, some of whom promote a more aggressive brand of conservatism than Lugar has practiced in his 35-year tenure in the U.S. Senate. Mourdock represents that more conservative wing of the GOP, and he clearly has the support and resources to give Lugar a stiff fight.”


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