Campaign debates

The back-and-forth between Gov. John Hickenlooper’s organization and that of his challenger, Republican Bob Beauprez, over how many times the candidates will debate is wholly predictable and purely political. At the same time, though, there is an important element to the issue that both men should embrace: Campaign strategy and personal preferences aside, the voters want and deserve a healthy airing of the two men’s differences. Debates give the voters a chance to make side-by-side comparisons, and the two agreed upon so far are not enough.

It would also not hurt a bit if the two campaigns recognize the diversity of the state and scheduled a couple of debates away from I-25 and I-70. Southwest Colorado would surely welcome one.

The fundamental dynamic of debates in a campaign like this is simple and well-understood. The incumbent has the advantage of better name recognition. (Beauprez ran for governor once before, but that was eight years ago.) He also has the bully pulpit his office provides.

He can get his message across without debates more easily than his opponent.

The challenger – and this is true regardless of the candidates involved – benefits from standing next to the incumbent and being taken seriously by all involved.

The very structure of a debate puts the candidates on an equal footing, and at least suggests they and their ideas both have merit.

The rules of the debate – and simple politeness – work to negate the inherent advantage of incumbency.

For those with longer memories, a prime example is how Ronald Reagan cut then-President Jimmy Carter off at the knees with a one-liner. Carter had given a somewhat lengthy and serious statement on Medicare and containing health-care costs (some issues are evergreen), in response to which Reagan smiled, shook his head and said, “There you go again.” A debate is about the only time someone can mock the president of the United States to his face.

With that sort of thing in mind, it is not surprising challengers always want more debates. And incumbents tend to resist. For the former, debates are an opportunity; for the latter, they are more of a risk.

In this case, however, the candidates are fairly evenly matched in terms of presentation. Neither is prone to flowery rhetoric. Both tend to give straightforward responses and present few opportunities for Reagan-like zingers.

In any case, elections are not – or at least should not be – just about the candidates. They are about the voters expressing their will and choosing not just the person they want in office, but the direction they want to see things go. And Hickenlooper and Beauprez have different priorities and visions as to where Colorado should be headed.

Colorado voters deserve to hear those ideas and not just in sound bites, professionally polished commercials or op-eds. They deserve to have their questions answered extemporaneously and in the candidates’ own words. The truth can come through in tone and body language as well as in how practiced and scripted the answers come across.

The two debates agreed up so far – in Pueblo and Grand Junction – should be seen as a good start.

But at least two or three more should be added. And one of those should be in Southwest Colorado.

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