I've been in favor of dumping or radically revamping presidential campaign debates for some time now.
The spotlight in which the nominees of the two major parties live for the months leading up to presidential elections means that by the time debates happen, you've already heard much of what they're going to say.
If they do say anything new, it's likely to be either an insubstantial zinger prepared by handlers or an otherwise inconsequential gaffe that gets subjected to treatment by various spinmeisters.
But in state and local races, which don't receive the sort of coverage accorded runs at the presidency, such debates can actually be informative, so long as the combatants successfully avoid imitating the pitfalls of presidential debates.
Yesterday's Ohio gubernatorial debate between Congressman Ted Strickland and State Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, held in Youngstown early in the day and aired statewide last night on the Ohio News Network was interesting at several levels.
First: While they did get in their "contrast talking points," with Blackwell painting Strickland as a tax and spend liberal and Strickland painting Blackwell as a flip-flopper who is a key player in the scandal-plagued state Republican apparatus, the debate was mostly amicable. The candidates weren't shrill.
Second: While the programs of both candidates are rather vague, each did a good job of conveying their general philosophy.
Third: Neither candidate wowed.
Fourth: I liked the format. A panel of journalists from the Youngstown area asked questions to first, Blackwell, and then Strickland. The first candidate had one minute to answer; the second candidate had thirty seconds to rebut; then came thirty seconds for the counter-rebuttal. The candidates were fairly disciplined in their responses and the moderator ran an admirably tight ship.
Fifth: I liked other elements that had been negotiated by the two campaigns. For example, the candidates never appeared on camera together, so there was no opportunity for one candidate to wander over to his opponent's podium to try engaging in brinksmanship or to one-up the other.
The worst part of the debate came when one of the panel asked a question about the war in Iraq.
The only thing worse was that, inexplicably, both candidates answered it.
The war in Iraq has almost nothing to do with the Ohio gubernatorial race. It was sort of equivalent to asking candidates in a presidential race, "What reforms ought to be made to Ohio's school funding formula?" Or, "If you were the Reds general manager, would you bring Homer Bailey up from the minors?"
Had I been Strickland, the one asked the question, I might have said, "I have strong feelings on this issue and a voting record. But it's not germane to this race." But both candidates answered the question, clearly disagreeing with one another.
Polls show that Strickland is up by about 18% right now. People appear to be disgusted with the statewide GOP, in firm control of the State House for sixteen years and plagued by a series of scandals.
It will be interesting to see how all of this unfolds.
[This piece was substantially cross-posted here.]