Some Senate candidates skirt challenges to debate

President Bush demonstrated after lengthy negotiations that he’s willing to face his opponent mano a mano in three presidential debates. But not all Senate candidates are displaying as much machismo.

Former Bush Housing Secretary Mel Martinez has refused to accept a proposal to debate former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor the week before the Nov. 2 election. Martinez said he doesn’t want to miss opportunities to campaign during the election season’s final days.

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Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) spar on “Meet the Press.”

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) recently floated a proposal to debate his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo — but on terms that might keep many Kentucky voters from noticing. Bunning proposed that the debate be held during the daytime on Columbus Day weekend. Mongiardo’s campaign has rejected that offer, opting to press for more debates.

Asked about his willingness to debate his opponent, Bunning told The Hill, “We’ve offered to do it — period.”

Candidate debates are purely optional, and Senate contests don’t have the same unified tradition of debates that exists at the presidential level. Senators say incumbents are naturally wary of participating in events that might give a lift to challengers. “If you have a big lead, there’s nothing to be gained,” said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). “Why rock the boat?”

“Why draw a crowd for an underfunded opponent?” observed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). McConnell criticized Mongiardo’s decision to refuse Bunning’s offer. “He wants to have more, and he might not even take one. I think it’s crazy.”

McConnell said that when he first won election as a challenger against Democratic Sen. Walter Huddleston, “He offered me one debate, and I took it.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he is scheduled to participate in two debates against his long-shot opponent, former state Sen. Art Small. “I think it’s something that’s kind of expected of you that you ought to be willing to do, without it being a burden,” Grassley said.

“My opponent challenged me to about 30 debates — every form that was ever thought of,” he said, exaggerating somewhat. But Grassley said he normally agrees to do “two or three” debates.

Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.) said his opponent skipped their first debate — an unusual move for a challenger. “I did two. She only did one,” he said. “I gave my presentation.”

NRSC Chairman Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) declined to encourage fellow Republicans to hold debates. “Everyone knows Jim Bunning is a strong leader,” he said. “Issues of debates are like almost a scheduling matter. … People know Jim Bunning. They don’t know his opponent.”

One incumbent who has been willing to debate more frequently than most of his Senate colleagues is Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Daschle and former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) agreed to schedule eight debates this year — including an hour-long appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday.

Observers say that because both Thune and Daschle have almost universal name recognition among South Dakota voters (Thune ran against Sen. Tim Johnson [D-S.D] last cycle), Daschle doesn’t need to worry about giving Thune a platform to introduce himself to voters. Daschle is also good on his feet, having made countless television appearances as party leader.

But Dick Wadhams, Thune’s campaign manager, said Daschle has accepted only a “small number” of the debates that have been offered, rejecting chances to appear before the Spearfish Chamber of Commerce, the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce and other groups. “It’s clear that Senator Daschle is apparently afraid to debate in front of a live audience,” he said, saying that all but one of the debates Daschle accepted were on television.

Dan Pfeiffer, Daschle’s campaign manager, said South Dakota voters expect candidates to be accessible and attend debates — and accused Thune of “hypocrisy to the nth degree” because Daschle has agreed to more debates than Thune held as an incumbent congressman running for reelection, and because two of the debates are before an audience.

Pfeiffer said Daschle was boosted by his “Meet the Press” appearance because “you put those two guys on stage, [and] you have a seasoned leader and an overeager follower.”

As he did last cycle, Tim Russert is hosting debates between candidates in several top-tier Senate races on “Meet the Press.” Candidates in the open-seat Oklahoma race are scheduled to appear Oct. 3, while candidates in the open Colorado race will appear Oct. 10 and candidates in the open South Carolina race will appear Oct. 17.

Candidates in four other races rejected an invitation to debate, according to Executive Producer Betsy Fischer. Erskine Bowles, President Clinton’s former chief of staff, declined to debate Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on the show, and Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama has declined an invitation to debate Alan Keyes, whom he leads by a wide margin in the open Illinois Senate race.

“We just think it’s a way to go beyond those 30-second commercials that everybody sees in covering these Senate races,” said Fischer.