Editorial

Editorial by the Rapid City Journal Editorial Board Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Thune is trying to turn the issue of debates with incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle into a big deal in this campaign. We think it should be.

Thune has called for more debates with Daschle between now and the Nov. 2 election, and charged that Daschle is ducking the issues � and Thune � whenever the state�s senior senator turns down a debate invitation.

Obviously, as the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, Daschle has plenty going on outside of his campaign. We understand his schedule is hectic, his responsibilities many, his days difficult to plan in advance.

So far, Daschle has agreed to five debates, including one already held in Mitchell. That�s not enough, especially since none of them, so far, is west of the Missouri River.

As a formidable incumbent with a hefty campaign bank account, a large staff and the power to fire a nearly continuous barrage of press releases � often little more than campaign advertisements � Daschle has the advantage over any challenger, even one so well known, well financed and well tested as Thune.

If the election were held today, Daschle almost certainly would win. But tracking-poll data � the highly oxygenated air inhaled constantly by politicians and their planners � shows that the race is still winnable by Thune.

That�s part of the reason Thune wants more debates and Daschle wants fewer. The popular political wisdom on debates is simple: Demand them when you�re behind, avoid them when you�re ahead.

Debates are risky for front-running incumbents. That�s especially true if the debates are free-wheeling, face-to-face verbal shootouts. In an unfiltered, potentially chaotic environment like that, front-runners � and, especially, their handlers � believe there is little to gain and plenty to lose.

Make no mistake, if Thune were the incumbent with the lead, he�d be a lot less interested in debates. If Daschle were the challenger and a few points down, he�d be a lot more inclined to rumble.

But setting aside their individual interests, we believe more debates would be good for voters, good for the campaign and, in the end, good for our entire political system.

Political campaigns have always been about manipulating reality � avoiding some truths while accentuating others � by opposing candidates. But now more than ever the major candidates rely on well-paid consultants, high-priced advertising blitzes and carefully scripted public appearances to highlight their strengths and camouflage their weaknesses.

We think it�s time to abandon this tedious maze of manipulation and return to the territory of the truth. And we encourage Tom Daschle and John Thune to lead us there through a series of weekly debates between now and the election.

Further, we think the current format of debates � which are often just forums, where candidates respond to a series of fragmented questions from reporters or audience members, rather than squaring off against each other � should be thrown out. The Daschle-Thune debates should be fashioned, loosely, after the historic series of debates between incumbent U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and his challenger, a political upstart named Abraham Lincoln.

When Douglas began his hourlong opening statement for the first debate with Lincoln, he committed himself to �discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind.�

The date was Aug. 21, 1858. The place was Ottawa, IL. It was the first of seven debates between then and Oct. 15 in different towns across Illinois � a series of detailed, lengthy, boldly articulate exchanges that led to Douglas� re-election to the Senate but also set the stage for Lincoln�s rise to the presidency a couple of years later.

People came to listen, to cheer, to jeer, to applaud and, especially, to learn more about these men, their beliefs and the way they would govern.

The debate format was wide open. After Douglas opened for an hour that first debate, Lincoln had the stage for 90 minutes, then Douglas closed for 30 minutes. At the next debate stop in Freeport, Lincoln opened and closed. And they alternated throughout the series.

Beyond that, there were few rules of engagement and no panel of news reporters to clog up the event with their own egos and superficial questions.

That�s how it should be in the Daschle-Thune debates, but with shorter periods of exchange, maybe 10 minute for opening remarks, then five minutes back and forth. There would be no �expert� panel of questioners, just one moderator whose only duty would be to open and close the debate and make sure neither candidate exceeded his time limit.

We like the idea of the Sunday Night Debates, televised live on public television, with replays during the week. We think word would spread, people would watch, the public would be engaged.

We think the Daschle-Thune debates could set a new direction for political campaigns. It�s a high-profile race between two bright, articulate candidates with strong ideals and differing philosophies � much like Lincoln and Douglas.

Just as there were back then, there are many issues today that �agitate the public mind.�

We�re asking Daschle and Thune to face up to them honestly in the coming two months, in a series of debates that could, once again, make history.

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