Little did I know that this would become part of my beat here at the blog: writing about candidates saying no to debates.
The latest, 1st District Rep. Bill Sali, said no Tuesday to an Idaho Public Television debate — just five days before it was scheduled to take place. Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman is citing time conflicts. "We just couldn't make it work in the schedule," Hoffman said in today's Statesman.
The debate's sponsors tried to come up with another time this weekend — including the less-than-ideal but better-than-nothing option of taping the debate for airing Sunday night. No go. From Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review's Eye on Boise blog:
"Hoffman said Sali’s schedule on that Saturday is booked up with a radio interview, a parade, a gun show and other campaign events. 'The whole day’s been blocked up,' he said. Hoffman said Sali has 'some kind of a meeting he was supposed to be attending' on Monday morning in Washington, D.C., so couldn’t debate on Sunday evening. 'Congressman Sali wishes it would work,' Hoffman said. 'There’s nothing I can do.'"
I'm not terribly sympathetic to the "busy schedule" argument, which 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson is also deploying to bow out of his debate. It's only marglnally better than the laughably tortured argument made by Senate candidate and Lt. Gov. Jim Risch — a squeamishness about a format that allows "cross talk" between the candidates.
The common thread between the debate no-shows is their perceived front-runner status. Sali and Simpson are incumbents facing relatively unknown challengers; Risch, the Senate candidate of choice among the GOP insiders, faces seven newcomers as well.
The front-runners, in theory, have nothing to gain and much to lose by giving the opposition free air time and an open opportunity to debate. I'd argue that, by being openly picky about which debates they attend, front-runners may actually cement their status as their party's "inevitable" nominee. Sali and Risch both have consented to taped debates sponsored by KTVB in Boise.
One thing is for sure: By saying no to this debate, Sali leaves his sole primary opponent, Matt Salisbury, on the outs. The 1st Congressional District debate is off, since Public TV does not air "empty chair" debates featuring only one candidate. Public TV's Senate debate will go on May 22, with or without Risch.
About the only risk comes if voters hold the front-runners to account for dodging debates. Something to consider, if you happen to bump into Sali at a gun show this weekend.
Disclosure: I'm vice president of the Idaho Press Club, which co-sponsors the Public TV debates along with the League of Women Voters. (The aforementioned Betsy Russell is the Press Club's president.) I'll also be helping with a panel of pundits offering online post-debate analysis of the Public TV debates — starting with Thursday night's Supreme Court debate, which airs at 8:30 p.m. Click here for the details.