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Posts published in “Day: July 11, 2008”

One empty chair of three (not two)

If you're a major party candidate and you want to debate your opponent, and your opponent seems less than eager to show up - all of which probably means you're behind and he's ahead - you're mostly out of luck. You can do the old traditional "debate the empty chair" - show up and do your pitch, basically - but that seldom has any significant impact.

What's happening in the Idaho U.S. Senate race is a little more interesting, for the reason that a third candidate is entering the equation.

The poll leader in the Idaho race is Republican nominee (and current Lieutenant Governor) Jim Risch, whose history in general election campaigns (in which he'd always been a front runner) has included the logical strategic move of limiting joint appearances with the opposition. (A note here: This is no absolute; Risch has appeared in debates in the past, including three in 2002 when your writer did work for an opposing campaign). Democratic nominee Larry La Rocco, who would like to debate Risch early and often, seems likely to get the bare minimum out of him (which seems to be an unusual pre-recorded appearance).

Enter one of the non-major-party candidates in the race, independent Rex Rammell (earlier on, a Republican). It was Rammell, evidently, who came up with the shrewd idea that a series of debates didn't necessarily have to include Risch - he and La Rocco could engage in debates all by themselves. Today he and La Rocco held a joint press conference to announce their plans to do just that, a group of about 10 debates around the state in October. Risch would be invited to participate, though the other two candidates indicated they weren't holding their breaths.

This is a smart move. The political/philosophical differences between La Rocco and Rammell are as great (we'd guess greater) than between La Rocco and Risch, which means that a debate between the two would offer a real contrast. Partly because of that, it's highly likely to draw media and other visibility.

Could it have an effect on the outcome? This is more problematic, since debates rarely do have much effect. But let's throw out a scenario . . . Nationally, a Democratic wave builds, and Idaho (with a newly strong Obama organization working internally, in tandem with the La Rocco campaign) pulls out a bunch of new voters. This, with La Rocco's highly energetic campaign (which it has been for more than a year now), raises La Rocco's vote a few points above the norm. Risch, who throughout his long career has been the utterly, totally loyal party man, hits some gravel as some of the independents-who-vote-Republican have second thoughts, and maybe pay attention to Rammell, who seems to be the ideologically-committed conservative guy who's seriously engaging the Democratic candidate. Risch's vote slips down a bit partly from Republican turnoff and partly because Rammell takes some of it away. Add in the crew of remaining candidates in the general election, most of which pull sliver-votes from the rights, and the outcome could move seriously into doubt . . .

No, that's not necessarily a prediction. But who knows? But Risch, smart strategist that he is, probably will be keeping a close watch on the La Rocco-Rammell show. You never know how the bank shots might go.