The last few weeks have featured a few political mini-eruptions as the June 26 Republican primary draws closer and candidates scramble to attract attention and visibility in a rather quiet period.
Former State Sen. Dan Liljenquist wants to debate Sen. Orrin Hatch early and often. Hatch has agreed to just one radio debate. Will Liljenquist's aggressive debate strategy help him with Republican primary voters?
Pignanelli: "A dull political debate is as exciting as watching one ping pong player" — Hal March Ever since the days when our cave-dwelling ancestors grunted their selection for the clan leader, there have been disputes of when and how a challenger could publicly encounter the existing office-holder. When I was a candidate challenging an incumbent, I wanted as many debates as possible to demonstrate my amazing knowledge and abilities. When I was the incumbent, the "pressures of public service" limited the number of joint appearances with my opponent.
Debates and joint political appearances usually benefit the challenger because they provide him/her the perception of equal status with the current office holder. Incumbents have little to gain in debating rivals. He or she is expected to perform well because they hold the public trust. Conversely, if there is a fumble, they attract much greater headlines then other contenders.
Thus, it is no surprise that Hatch has agreed to only one more debate prior to the primary. Voters do expect their officials to participate in some form of public deliberation with opponents. (Hatch participated in several debates and joint appearances prior to the convention.) Liljenquist's frustration is understandable, but Utahns will not use the number of debates as a metric to determine their choice for the next U.S. senator. Indeed, this argument has a poor track record in Utah political history.
Webb: The quieter this race is, the more it benefits Hatch. He is already well-known and well-liked among Republican voters, has lots of money for paid media and enjoys a big array of high-level endorsements (including Mitt Romney). Liljenquist isn't well-known, has limited money and has a hard time getting attention. So a series of debates, or at least a robust debate about debates, is his best chance for visibility. But successful campaigns aren't in the business of helping out their opponents, so Hatch strategists, no doubt, see little upside in giving Liljenquist visibility and stature.
It's highly likely that Hatch would do just fine in debates. But a smaller chance exists that he would come across as old and a little dull, while Liljenquist might appear young, smart and dynamic. So why take the chance? For now, it appears the Hatch campaign prefers not to boost Liljenquist's profile, even if it means taking a lot of heat for avoiding debates.
The recent Republican presidential debates played an unprecedented role in determining the popularity and acceptability of candidates. More than half of the original contenders were eliminated because of poor televised debate performances. Do debates have a similar importance in the Utah elections?
Pignanelli: No. Most political contenders in the state are nice to each other in person — which results in boring public arguments that only a minority of voters view. The audiences in local debates are comprised of the staff and loyal followers of the combatants. Thus, the answer to each question delivers a contest of cheers and boos between spectators.
Webb: Debates can be very important, but usually only if a candidate makes a big mistake. In today's social media-frenzied world, where a gaffe immediately goes viral on YouTube and Facebook for everyone to see, a bad debate performance can sink a candidate.
Way back in 1978 (evidence of how old I am), freshman GOP Rep. Dan Marriott faced a formidable debater in Ed Firmage, a University of Utah Law School professor. Marriott had won election two years earlier on a fluke (his Democratic opponent was busted in a sex solicitation sting), so he was not well known and was viewed as something of a lightweight. Most observers thought Marriott would avoid debating Firmage, but instead he did the opposite, debating dozens of times. Marriott turned out to have a solid grasp of the issues, was a good debater, and he boosted his visibility and solidified his image as a substantive incumbent. He handily won re-election. A young political strategist named Mike Leavitt was Marriott's campaign manager.
The Salt Lake County mayoral primary has descended into a wrestling match between West Valley Mayor Mike Winder and former County Rep. Mark Crockett over campaign contribution complaints. Are these real ethical issues or a red herring?
Pignanelli: An allegation of an "ethical violation" guarantees a headline. Political reporters love to dwell on the nuances and technicalities of the various reports that are filed regarding contributions and expenditures. The average voter does not understand — nor does he or she care. Unless bribery is charged, the focus is on other issues.
Webb: This has been a rather quiet campaign with Winder ahead, based mostly on name recognition. Crockett must do something to attract attention, so a supporter filed a complaint, and then a Winder supporter filed a counter-complaint against Crockett. Neither complaint has much substance or reflects on the candidates' abilities to govern Salt Lake County.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.