The state’s general election campaign really got under way Friday with a series of debates sponsored by the Arkansas Press Association during its annual convention in Hot Springs.
We’ve been hammered by television commercials castigating candidates for U.S. senator and governor — thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court for that. But we haven’t had any occasions to compare the candidates face to face, word for word.
We’ll have to wait a while longer for the supposedly big race, in which 4th District Congressman Tom Cotton, a Republican, is challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat.
At first Cotton was to appear via a videophone setup because he was needed for business on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. But that fell through, and then Pryor declined to appear in a debate involving only third-party candidates. The APA canceled the event.
Cotton and Pryor already were having trouble agreeing on a debate format, leaving us for now with little more than those deceitful TV messages financed by anonymous, big-money interests from out of state.
Three other debates went on, though, as part of the convention program, at least putting the spotlight on races for three important state offices — governor, attorney general and lieutenant governor. OK, it could be debated whether the latter is important.
In fact, one of the candidates for lieutenant governor, Chris Olson of Leslie, said he would, if elected, work to abolish the office, which has been vacant since the resignation Feb. 1 of Mark Darr because of ethic problems.
Olson, a Libertarian Party nominee, was participating because the press association decided to invite all candidates. He saved that event from becoming a one-man show when U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, the Republican nominee, appearing via a Skype hookup, was called away for a House vote less than halfway through the debate.
That left Olson and the Democratic nominee, Little Rock businessman John Burkhalter, to carry on. Unfortunately, Olson had little to contribute, stumbling over a question as to what he would do if elected, other than to abolish the office. He did endorse a proposed amendment to legalize medical marijuana, which didn’t make the ballot.
Whether to include so-called minor candidates is always a dilemma for organizations sponsoring a debate. It’s legal to exclude them, as proven in a lawsuit filed by AETN a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem fair.
On the other hand, their inclusion detracts from the ability of the major-party candidates to distinguish themselves on campaign issues. Debates, especially if televised, have severe time limits for the candidates to speak and answer questions. Typically, sponsors offer a 2- or 3-minute opening and closing, with maybe 2 minutes to answer each question and rebuttal time of 30 seconds to a minute.
That doesn’t allow for any in-depth discussions.
When you go from the two major candidates to four, as the APA did for the governor’s race, in a 1-hour debate that can cut the total speaking time for each candidate in half.
Without being included in debates, third-party candidates have even less chance of success since they normally lack money for media advertising. Most also don’t have an organization to plan public appearances, and-or they have full-time jobs that keep them from going on the road much.
That said, most third-party candidates bring little to the campaign. Getting into the race may be relatively easy. Olson said his filing fee was $100, while Griffin and Burkhalter paid $7,500, and Griffin had to win a primary.
The Libertarian Party candidate for attorney general, Aaron Cash, 26, of Springdale, who just graduated from law school, said his main qualification was that he’d had less time to be corrupted by politics than the other candidates.
He got off the best line of that debate, quipping that people might not recognize him because he’d left his tin-foil hat at home. Otherwise, his focus was on advocating legalization of marijuana as a means of reducing prison overcrowding.
That left the more serious discussion to the mainstream candidates, Republican Leslie Rutledge of Little Rock and Democrat Nate Steel of Nashville, a state representative. Both tried to distance themselves from partisan politics, with Steel even suggesting that the attorney general should be elected on a nonpartisan ballot.
For the gubernatorial debate, held during a luncheon meeting, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, both former congressmen, were joined by two third-party candidates, who mainly slowed down an otherwise lively discussion.
The debate order had Green Party candidate Josh Drake, a Hot Springs attorney, often following Ross, and three times Drake simply agreed with what Ross had just said.
Libertarian Party candidate Frank Gilbert of Tull endeared himself to the audience with humor and contrarian ideas — newspaper people love a colorful character. However, he said his first act in office would be to grant pardon or parole to all nonviolent drug offenders, thus relieving prison overcrowding.
Ross went hard after Hutchinson, pundits later concluding that was an indication he feels the need to catch up. They’ll get another chance in an October TV debate, without the third-party candidates sharing time.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.