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: (more…)