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Even more of a press conference

We’ve long argued that the proper format for candidate debates is the simpler the better: Clear away everyone but the two (or more) candidates and a moderate to keep the peace and guide the discussion. Start with a general topic or proposition, and then – within the general bounds of civility and time fairness – let the candidates have at it. You’d get much better insight into the candidates and their ideas that way – and even much better drama – than through the usual glorified press conference approach that characterizes most debates.

The new proposal by Governor Jim Risch for his lieutenant governor debate with Democrat Larry La Rocco (as reported on Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell’s blog), however, takes things in the other direction – no candidate interaction at all, and nothing left but two glorified press conferences. Risch’s proposal calls for two half-hour sessions in which each candidate would be questioned by reporters, with the other candidate entirely absent.

She said Risch’s spokesman (and his son) Jason Risch explained the idea was proposed “due to the disruptive nature of previous experiences with the opposition.” Russell did not indicate that he elaborated.

The proposal was rejected by Elinor Chehey, the veteran coordinator of debates for the League of Women Voters.

A pile of questions come to mind. Let’s sift through some of the more pertinent.

Before going further, this disclosure is necessary: I had a particular involvement with Risch’s last round of general election debates for the office of lieutenant governor, in 2002. I was manager of the campaign for his general election opponent, Democrat Bruce Perry, an attorney with good campaigning skills but who was lightly organized, far less funded than Risch, and less well known, running in a very Republican state in what turned out to be a Republican year nationally. We viewed the debates – if memory serves, three joint debate appearances with Risch – as an important opportunity to cut into his advantages. We did not think that would be easy. Risch is not only above-average smart but also (even in the context of experienced politicians) above-average articulate, and well-disciplined candidate as well. We prepared intensively, with the hope of hitting a hot button and getting him to lose his cool. He never did. (At most, he looked a little tense at times.) We got the sense that Risch tried to push Perry’s buttons too, understandably, and Perry similarly kept his cool. Our internal assessment was that we “won” one debate, and more or less drew even in the other two. (We never heard how Risch viewed them, though based on some circumstancial evidence we speculated his take was similar.) In the end, it didn’t much matter. Risch won the race decisively.

In reflection: Both sides took the debates seriously and fared respectably, no one emerged wounded, and neither did anyone misbehave. Nor were there any accusations to that effect at the time, or since.

Does Risch’s concern about the civility of the upcoming debate have to do with his experience from four years ago? So far as we can tell, both campaigns for lieutenant governor behaved in 2002 with civility. (Risch’s view, of course, could vary.)

Might he be referring to previous, legislative debates? He debated La Rocco 20 years ago in a race for the state Senate; but our recollection is that debate was also civil enough. (Risch won that race as well.) Risch has participated in quite a few debates over the years, and (so far as we can recall) never emerged damaged from any of them. Political debates in Idaho, those involving Risch and not, have almost always been civil to the point of being snooze-inducing, and Risch is a more than capable public speaker. So one question would be: What exactly is it he’s so concerned about?

We know that his initial request for a format change this year has been rejected. So a second question would be: What if he insists?

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