Crist-Davis debate format is topic for debate

Published October 13, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Is Charlie Crist dodging the tough questions?

On the night he clinched the Republican nomination for governor last month, Crist quickly challenged Democrat Jim Davis to statewide debates - plural.

But while Davis readily agreed to two live, prime-time TV debates, Crist has agreed to only one, Oct. 24 on Florida's public TV stations.

A second planned encounter Oct. 30 in Tampa, moderated by Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball and sure to generate a larger audience on Florida's eight NBC stations, has hit a major snag.

The debate format calls for the three to sit around a desk similar to Meet the Press, but minus opening statements by the candidates.

But Crist is unwilling to meet Davis in an unstructured, informal setting resembling the freewheeling style of Matthews' TV show.

George LeMieux, chief of staff to Crist, said Crist doesn't object to Matthews as moderator. But LeMieux said the format, from the studios of WFLA-Channel 8 in Tampa, would showcase Matthews at the expense of the candidates.

"We just don't want to sit on a couch and have a talk show," LeMieux said. "The moderator should be a facilitator, and should not be the star."

LeMieux confirmed he has begun talks about a second debate hosted by the Miami Herald and Florida's CBS affiliates.

Davis desperately needs all the media exposure he can get. A poll this week by Quinnipiac University said nearly six in 10 voters don't know enough about Davis to form an opinion of him.

Davis said Crist is unwilling to defend the status quo on issues such as property taxes, property insurance and public education.

"I know what's going on here," Davis said. "Charlie doesn't want to stand up and talk about any of this stuff. He just wants to pretend, as he's been saying since May on TV, that we need to 'continue the prosperity.' "

In his victory speech Sept. 5 in St. Petersburg, Crist said: "The next 63 days will be a contest of ideas, experience and vision. Tonight, I challenge the Democratic nominee to statewide televised debates. Our vision versus his vision, our ideas versus his ideas."

Yet with the general election campaign now more than half over, Crist and Davis have not yet shared a single public forum so voters could compare platforms.

Since winning the nomination, Crist has generally conducted a low-key campaign. But LeMieux denied Crist, who leads by 10 points in the most recent poll, was "running out the clock" to deny Davis media attention.

"He can't be every place he needs to be," LeMieux said of Crist. "We have to run our campaign the way we think is most effective."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or at 850 224-7263.