SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Senate candidate Dan Liljenquist renewed his call this week for televised debates with Sen. Orrin Hatch before next month's Republican primary election. But the longtime senator refuses to debate on television and maintains that the single scheduled radio debate is sufficient.
KSL and the Deseret News this month offered the candidates an hour-long prime time debate in early June, an invitation Liljenquist quickly accepted. Hatch did not respond.
Two days later, the Hatch campaign agreed to a debate on KSL Radio's "Doug Wright Show" to be conducted a week or so before the June 26 primary. Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen said it would be the only debate the senator would do before the election. A date has yet to be scheduled.
This week, KSL-TV proposed to the Hatch campaign that the radio debate be videotaped and rebroadcast on television, and offered to conduct and air a debate from Washington, D.C., to accommodate the senator's schedule.
"They declined to do any televised debate," said Tanya Vea, KSL executive vice president for news and cross platform development.
Vea said she's disappointed there won't be a TV debate because voters deserve to see candidates as much as possible. The radio debate, however, will be open to reporters and television cameras from all media outlets, she said.
Meantime, the Liljenquist camp continues to bang the drum for eight debates before the election.
“Sen. Hatch needs to come out of hiding and give Utahns the respect they deserve by agreeing to televised debates,” Liljenquist said.
University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said he brought a group of students to meet with Hatch in Washington earlier this month. Some of them raised the debate question. Hatch told them he and Liljenquist debated twice and had a dozen joint appearances before the state GOP convention.
"He thought that was enough. At this point, he was going to be concerned with doing his job, not with a televised debate with a member his own party," Chambless said. "He was soft-spoken about it but also very adamant."
Hatch's resistance to appearing on television next to Liljenquist has been a hot topic on Twitter and in the political blogosphere. Both Salt Lake daily newspapers have called for televised debates.
Political observers posed several reasons for Hatch's unwillingness to debate on TV.
It's common political strategy for an incumbent with an ample campaign war chest to avoid debating a lesser-known, lesser-funded challenger at all.
"Hatch can get his message out a hundred ways," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics. "Liljenquist will take all the free media he can get. That's what debates can be seen as in some ways."
Hatch has the advantage with name recognition, money and he almost won the nomination in convention, Chambless said. "I can see why he doesn't want to give his opponent any advantage," he said.
Still, Chambless said he would like to see a debate.
Age also might also play a factor. Hatch is 78; Liljenquist 37.
"Sometimes youth comes across better on TV," said Jowers, noting the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. While Nixon came across better on radio, Kennedy appeared the winner to television viewers.
Hansen said Hatch has no apprehension about debating on TV. But he said the campaign likes the informal format on Wright's radio show. "We're comfortable with that," Hansen said.
In 2006, Hatch debated Democratic challenger Pete Ashdown on television several times, including a joint appearance on KSL's "Conversation with the Candidates."
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