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Time for some nonpartisan ground rules about debates 

Clancy DuBos says the candidates in Louisiana have too much sway over debate formats

click to enlarge The Louisiana gubernatorial candidates at the first televised debate, which was held at WDSU-TV in New Orleans Oct. 1.


The Louisiana gubernatorial candidates at the first televised debate, which was held at WDSU-TV in New Orleans Oct. 1.

It's time to localize our governor's race again. With the advent of Super PACs and their dominance of campaign fundraising and political messaging, the old truism that "all politics is local" no longer applies. Out-of-state interests have hijacked every election from governor to school board.

  How can we reverse that destructive trend?

  One way is by taking back the debates, especially in the race for governor. Granted, Super PACs don't control the timing or formats of debates, but they do tend to coalesce behind certain candidates who quickly emerge as frontrunners. Those frontrunners, in turn, often exert too much influence over the number, timing and formats of debates.

  Case in point: U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the current gubernatorial race. Vitter has raised more money than all his opponents combined, thanks to Super PACs, and he has absolutely dictated the course of the campaign by refusing to participate in debates that are truly open and unscripted. He has taken some hits for that — and he deserves more — but he still has gotten away with manipulating the debate process to his advantage.

  Blogger and columnist Bob Mann recently suggested that Louisiana establish a gubernatorial debate commission. That lofty idea sounds great, but I doubt it could ever get past the Louisiana Legislature — and certainly not past a governor like David Vitter.

  There's an easier, more direct way to achieve that aim, however: The Louisiana Association of Broadcasters should join forces with the League of Women Voters or another nonpartisan group to establish uniform ground rules, dates and formats for the gubernatorial runoff.

  For starters, the broadcasters (TV and radio stations) must agree to abandon the current system of TV stations competing to host debates. That system doesn't serve the public interest because it lets candidates decide which debates matter (read: the ones with "friendlier" formats) by attending some and avoiding others.

  Take that power away from the candidates by agreeing to, say, three statewide debates in the Nov. 21 runoff — and let all stations carry the debate if they so choose. Instead of stations competing to have their anchors moderate the debates (which led to WDSU's debacle on Oct. 1), let the League determine the format, topic, moderator and questioners. Make it about the issues, not the anchors.

  Most of all, the stations should make it clear to any candidate who thinks he can marginalize a debate by not attending that his opponent will get an hour of free time on statewide television to say anything he wants about the candidate who's too chicken to show up and face the questions. And then stick to that decision.

  Such a strategy would serve the public interest — something all broadcasters have a duty to do under their federally issued licenses — and restore relevance to the debates. It also would offer voters a chance to see what the candidates are made of by forcing them to answer tough questions from knowledgeable reporters under the firm hand of a skilled moderator who won't let any candidate "take over" a debate.

  It's time to stop allowing candidates call the shots on debates. They make enough bad decisions once they're in office.

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