In our opinion: Up for debate

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Oct. 18, 2011, file photo Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, talk during a Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.

Associated Press

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If it seems the number of presidential debates has been creeping up in recent years, that's because it has.

The GOP candidates have faced off eight times already this year, with another 13 debates possible before the end of January. Compare that to the 2000 primaries, when Republicans held 13 debates during the entire cycle. At this rate, there could be as many as 30 primary debates if the nominating contest stretches into the spring.

It's not hard to see why they are multiplying. The 2011 debates have proved immensely popular, generating record-setting ratings that have surpassed even the most popular debates between candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. They are also an inexpensive source of programming for cable news channels, whose talking heads can milk debate clips for days afterwards. Indeed, the echo effect of debate videos being recirculated on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has amplified the impact of this year's debates more than ever.

Some complain it's too much, but a more prominent role for debates in the campaign is a net positive.

For one thing, it puts the spotlight on substantive issues and holds candidates immediately accountable for their statements. Many memorable moments of this year's debates have been notable not simply for the political theater involved, but because they revolved around a candidate's approach to issues such as immigration, HPV vaccinations or economic recovery. One could argue that Rick Perry, possibly the most telegenic and charismatic of the candidates, was unable to capitalize on these gifts because he got tripped up by the issues.

The proliferation of debates also helps ameliorate some common concerns about the nominating process. For example, they force candidates to play to a national audience rather than just a few initial primary states, giving a measure of influence to voters in states with later primary dates.

The debates also give candidates with fewer resources a platform for getting their message out. Even if those with lower poll numbers are positioned less prominently on the stage (or in a closet or in the parking garage, as a Saturday Night Live debate spoof joked), the opportunity for exposure does somewhat level the playing field between those who can afford more TV spots and those who can't.

Just ask Herman Cain, who was catapulted to frontrunner status when he used the debates to talk about his 9-9-9 plan. Or Ron Paul, who has maintained a small but steady foothold in the polls and, perhaps more importantly, continued to draw attention to minority views within the party.

On the other hand, debates can be bad for frontrunners, who have little to gain and everything to lose, as illustrated by the rise and fall of Rick Perry, who is now wondering whether to sit out future debates and risk appearing weak, or to continue to appear and face the same risk.

Mass media and the digital revolution have forever altered political campaigns. They have lengthened the campaign season, turned a candidate's physical appearance into a gamechanger, transformed fundraising and now magnified every move and every pronouncement of would-be nominees.

Some lament these changes, saying they make a candidate's appearance — a factor that should be trivial — of paramount importance. But televised debates do more than that: they bring the candidates closer to the American people, in turn producing a more informed electorate and a stronger democracy. The nation needs substantive solutions to challenging issues and strong leaders to implement them. This year's debates have helped a national audience better understand the Republican candidates' ideas and personalities. Kudos to the media organizations that have reinvigorated what was once considered a boring public duty into a popular and informative format.

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