There is one sure-fire way to identify the underdog in an election: Look for the one who calls for a debate.
The candidate perceived as favored to win has little to gain in a debate. The public potentially gains information from debates, but the front-runner risks an unscripted stumble that can't be controlled by the managed marketing of a campaign.
The underdog has nothing to lose but the election. A debate can help because it forces the frontrunner to appear on the same stage, drawing media attention that a lone candidate can't otherwise get.
The challenge to a debate also can be a useful political tool. The underdog can issue a debate challenge, and then make chicken noises when the frontrunner doesn't immediately agree.
Back in the waning days of the campaign for sheriff, Lewis Blanchard challenged incumbent Clay Whittle to a debate. Blanchard was very gentlemanly about it, communicating the request in a low-key manner, and dropping it altogether when Deputy Wesley Mack was killed in a motorcycle crash.
The two had already appeared in two community forums, so they'd already had time on stage together.
Not so with Bob Ellis and Charlie Norwood. Ellis, an Evans Democrat, is trying to unseat 9th District U.S. Rep. Norwood, an Evans Republican. In addition to all the advantages of incumbency, the 9th District is drawn to favor a GOP candidate.
With little-to-no name recognition, and little money to buy more, Ellis is trying to draw Norwood into facing him in a series of debates.
Norwood isn't biting, so Ellis' staff taunted him recently by sending out the text of the challenge and including a comment from Ellis that Norwood "did very poorly" in the "few occasions" he has debated.
Actually, I was in the audience when Norwood -- a retired dentist -- debated David Bell in 1994 and more than held his own against the seasoned attorney. With 10 years in Congress under his belt, Norwood would do as good or better vs. Ellis, a college professor.
Still, Norwood will undoubtedly ignore Ellis' "invitation," thereby depriving his opponent of the boost in prestige -- and media coverage, the main point of it all -- that comes from sharing the stage with a sitting congressman. Ellis' staff says they may set up forums in the district anyway. Such events have the potential of being perceived as empty-chair debates, though Ellis' folks say they won't characterize them as such.
Also seeking to share a stage is Chuck Pardue, the Democrat seeking the District 24 state Senate seat. In November, Pardue faces Republican Jim Whitehead, who defeated incumbent Joey Brush in the July primary.
Pardue asked that the race be included in the Sept. 13 and Oct. 5 debates for the four school board candidates. Columbia County Republican Party Chairman Lee Muns said no; the focus of those debates is on the school board races.
Pardue now hopes to set up some kind of forum with Whitehead, who like Norwood has the advantage of more money and a Republican-friendly district. "I think it would be very entertaining and very informative," Pardue says.
So, here's a debate challenge of my own: Columbia County's Democratic Party whined like girlie-men when the Republican Party last year set up a series of debates for the non-partisan special election in the District 3 County Commission race. And they complained about being left out when the GOP set up debates for candidates in the July primary this year.
Well, why don't Columbia County's Democrats take the initiative to set up a forum of their own, and invite not only Pardue and Whitehead, but Ellis and Norwood, too?
And if Norwood and Whitehead don't show up, at least Ellis and Pardue would have an audience.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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