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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The pros and cons of debating for Orrin Hatch and Dan Liljenquist

Published: Sunday, May 27 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Dan Liljenquist speaks to reporters after the announcement that he forced Senator Orrin Hatch into a primary election at the Utah Republican Party 2012 Nominating Convention at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy on Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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.

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