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Leveraging the debate debate

Whenever one candidate (ordinarily the one behind) wants to debate more often than the other (usually the frontrunner), there’s an attempt to turn it into an issue aimed at telling the voters something about the two candidates. An attempt to create a narrative. (Your scribe makes that observation partly out of personal experience.)

That usually has limited effect, partly because it often is written off (and often reasonably) as a trailing candidate scrambling to find arrows to throw at the guy in front. Another reason for its limited efficacy is that, more often than not, the leading candidate has little to fear in a debate. The leader usually is leading because he (or she) is well established, has experience in such faceoffs, is running in an area favorable to his party, and so on. And there’s this: Usually, the effort to crank up more debates has no one pushing hard for it other than the trailing candidate.

Taken together, this is why the latest debate push by the Oregon gubernatorial campaign of John Kitzhaber, the Democratic former governor, may matter more than most. Kitzhaber has been jabbing away at his Republican opponent, former basketball player Chris Dudley, for missing the traditional opening midsummer faceoff in front of Oregon’s newspaper publishers, which Kitzhaber attended and Dudley (who was schmoozing business lobbyists in Aspen at the time) missed. Newspapers took notice.

Dudley has been pushing for fewer debates and Kitzhaber more. The normal logic would be that this is because Kitzhaber is clearly trailing Dudley, but that isn’t the case: At most, polling shows the two running closely together, although our estimate remains that Kitzhaber has something of a lead. The other parts of the normal equation don’t fit either. Dudley has only slight experience in head-to-head candidate debates, and when he did them during the primary campaign, he came across as unimpressive. Kitzhaber, extremely well-informed, crisply articulate and sometimes witty on top of that, could be expected to mop the floor with Dudley – in fact, he has more to lose on the expectations front.

But by pressing the case now, Kitzhaber has Dudley on a defensive in part because he has pre-agreed to a string of debates around the state. The Kitzhaber campaign sent a letter (released publicly, of course) to Dudley’s campaign, to drive the point home. From it:

On July 9 I sent you a letter on behalf of John Kitzhaber in an effort to agree on a debate schedule for the general election. In that letter I proposed seven issue-based debates around the state.

Events since that time have made it clear that Chris Dudley is purposefully avoiding opportunities to debate.

First, the lack of any response to a letter you received over a month ago indicates the level of interest Mr. Dudley has in allowing Oregonians to compare the principal gubernatorial candidates side-by-side. This is, of course, disappointing to anyone who believes that offering and defending one’s plans and positions is an essential part of the democratic process.

Second, the incidents surrounding the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association debate on July 16 have been well-documented, and do not need to be elaborated upon in this letter. This was an important debate that has not been missed by a major party candidate for nearly a quarter century. Suffice it to say his unwillingness to appear – and the shifting reasons provided for that failure to appear – offer further indications of his intent.

Finally, we offered to defer to Mr. Dudley’s schedule so that the candidates could debate before the Oregon Mayors Association on July 30, but our offer was refused – even though our offer was to join him at the time and place that Mr. Dudley was actually scheduled to appear.

Taken together, these events provide a clear indication that Mr. Dudley is either unwilling or unready to debate. John Kitzhaber is ready, willing and able to do so, and continues to believe that it is important for Oregon to move forward. Out of respect for the more than 40 organizations that have contacted our campaign to host a debate, I have confirmed John for the debates listed below. These debates provide voters across the state with the opportunity to hear from John on a variety of issues important to Oregonians.


9/9 Eastern Oregon Rural Alliance – Burns
Topic: Economic Development in Eastern Oregon

9/23 Urban League of Portland/African American Alliance for Homeownership – Portland
Topic: Economic and Social Justice

9/24 Eugene City Club
Topic: Early Childhood Education

9/25 League of Oregon Cities – Statewide Representation in Eugene
Topic: State Budget


10/8 Portland City Club – Portland-Metro Area
Topic: All

10/18 KOBI TV – Medford
Topic: All

10/24 KATU TV/League of Women Voters/AARP – Broadcast Statewide
Topic: All

Please know that this list is inclusive and we will be planning John’s remaining campaign schedule around these dates.

We hope to see Chris Dudley there.

A very sharp hit.

For one thing, there’s now a string of people and organizations, including news media, who will be leaning on Dudley, and putting him on the defensive.

The shredest jab of all was the very first debate listed – in Burns, out in the heart of conservative Republican country, a place that likely has never ever held a gubernatorial debate, much less the first one in the campaign. A Dudley refusal there, at an even where Kitzhaber still shows up, could make quite a splash.

This is not the first really effective use of the debate lever in Northwest politics. But it looks like the most effective in many years.

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