Another Debate over Debating


If political candidates spent as much energy debating eac other as they do maneuvering over how and how often to debate, the voters would know a lot more about them. Just as President Bush and Bill Clinton have sparred over their national debates, Maryland's candidates for the U.S. Senate are bobbing and weaving over theirs.

As usual, the challenger -- Republican Alan Keyes in this case -- complains that the incumbent -- Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski -- is avoiding him. And the incumbent retorts that she is ++ responding fully to debate opportunities.

Most incumbents dislike televised debates, no matter how skilled they are, because they are loath to give their normally less-well-financed opponents free air time and an aura of parity. Which is why the challengers seek them so eagerly.

So far Senator Mikulski and Mr. Keyes have agreed on only one televised debate, on Oct. 19 over the Maryland Public Television network, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. They will also meet in a radio forum on Washington's WMAL-AM Oct. 14. WMAR-TV in Baltimore has invited them to debate later. Mr. Keyes has accepted; Senator Mikulski has not, and she is wrong.

Mr. Keyes quite rightly wants a debate in the commercial Baltimore TV market where most of the viewers are. A black conservative, he contends that MPT's audience is minuscule, especially among African Americans, compared to Channel 2's and accuses his opponent of ducking him in front of her home-town constituents. Crucial to his hopes for an upset victory is attracting more African American voters to the GOP banner.

It is true enough that MPT's signal blankets the Baltimore area as effectively as WMAR's. But it is also true that its usual audience is smaller, whiter and probably more liberal than the Channel 2 cross-section of the population as a whole. Mr. Keyes has the better of this pre-debate debate.

Face-to-face debates are a valuable way for voters to size up candidates. The more the better. Mr. Keyes is an intelligent, highly articulate speaker who was a student oratory champion. Senator Mikulski is a veteran politician with a national reputation who is effective on the rostrum, too. The Republican challenger has a number of ideas that are worth airing in these troubled times. The Democratic incumbent is more than capable of responding, however reluctant she may be to give Mr. Keyes wide public exposure. Senator Mikulski should think again. Debates give the electorate something besides packaged pap and 30-second sound bites to mull on the way to the polling place.

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