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More debates are needed to help voters

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

A question for Florida voters: With the Sept. 10 Democratic gubernatorial primary just over seven weeks away, do you know where the candidates are on the issues you care about?

You've probably heard that Bill McBride wants to raise the cigarette tax to help pay for the additional $1.1-billion he proposes to spend on Florida's public schools. He also supports affirmative action and abortion rights. But do you know exactly where he stands on gun control, the death penalty or tort reform?

Janet Reno, the Democratic frontrunner, talks about improving public schools, shaking up the Department of Children and Family Services and protecting the environment. But what else do you know about Reno's platform? Can you name a specific proposal she has put forward on any issue?

Do you know where the candidates stand on the constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot to limit class size, provide prekindergarten education, prohibit smoking in all establishments except bars, to revive the Board of Regents and to outlaw the close confinement of pregnant pigs?

It's not too early for voters to start educating themselves about the candidates and the issues, and it's long past time for the candidates to do their part by moving the political debate beyond their attacks on Gov. Jeb Bush and engaging each other. Don't count on campaign ads and stump speeches to fill in the blanks. If anything, they may only add to the confusion.

What voters need is a series of debates that would give them an opportunity to size up the candidates and allow for a detailed examination of the candidates' views on important issues. Since both Reno and McBride both have put education at the top of their agendas, why not have one debate devoted exclusively to education?

For example, both candidates say they want to reduce class size in Florida schools, leaving voters with the impression that they support the ballot initiative mandating smaller class size. If approved by the voters, the mandate would require this financially strapped state to come up with billions of dollars it does not have. So how would Reno and McBride raise the money to pay for this program? Would they be willing to raise taxes (sorry, McBride, you can't pay for smaller class size with another cigarette tax), and if so, which ones?

Multiple campaign debates are particularly important when voters have to choose between two candidates making their first bid for public office, as Reno and McBride are doing. An incumbent has a record to run on and defend. I doubt that there are many voters who don't know what Jeb Bush's record is on most of the issues that will be at the center of this year's election.

McBride, who needs the exposure, had hoped for at least three televised debates, but Reno has grudgingly agreed to participate in only one, to be held in West Palm Beach on Aug. 27 and made available to NBC television stations around the state.

Reno's political calculation is obvious. She figures McBride needs the debates more than she does, that she has little to gain and maybe a lot to lose by giving voters more than one opportunity to compare her command of the issues with McBride's. Reno's strategy is to try to sit on her lead in the polls and deny McBride an opening to make a breakthrough.

It's true that three debates would be politically risky for Reno, but so will a single debate less than two weeks before the primary election. If the former U.S. attorney general bombs in her one debate with McBride, she won't have an opportunity to recover from the damage. Her campaign doesn't have enough money to counterattack with a late statewide advertising blitz.

The real losers, of course, will be the Democratic voters Reno will have shortchanged. So far, her campaign has been about Janet Reno and little else. It's short on substance and long on name recognition. If she is the best Democrat to take on Jeb Bush, as she claims, then let her prove it by engaging in multiple debates with McBride (and with state Sen. Daryl Jones, if he meets the threshold to rate a debate invitation).

We know Reno has made successful guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. What we don't know is how Reno, if she wins her party's nomination, would fare on stage debating Jeb Bush. Of course, Bush doesn't need to debate his Democratic challenger. From his standpoint, the fewer debates this fall the better. It will be the Democrats who will need debates in the general election. Which raises an interesting question: If she is her party's nominee, how many debates will Reno ask for? Three? One? Or none?

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