Substance in the Senate Campaign


Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bill Brock has challenged Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes to a series of six debates on paid prime time television in an effort to free their contest from the tyranny of the 30-second sound bite.

This is a predictable move for an underdog trying to unseat a well-ensconced incumbent. Just as predictably, Mr. Sarbanes is saying thanks but no thanks. He is just too busy with his duties in the Senate and doesn't want to miss any votes. Maybe in late October he will find time for a couple of debates -- no format specified -- after Congress adjourns and the Nov. 8 election approaches.

It should be a given that every politician is free to run his campaign in whatever style he wishes. Voters have seen it all: candidates door-bell ringing across the landscape, brochures jamming mailboxes, forums with the proverbial empty seat, TV ads competing with Toyota and Timex, finally the odd televised debate that puts the front-runner at risk and gives the challenger a rare chance for a knockout.

In his previous re-election campaigns, Mr. Sarbanes has generally followed the Rose Garden, aloof-from-it-all strategy that seems to be his formula again this time. Too bad. Maybe he had good cause to dismiss the likes of Lawrence J. Hogan in 1982 and Alan L. Keyes in 1988. But Mr. Brock is of a different order of magnitude -- a former senator from Tennessee, chairman of the Republican National Committee, Labor secretary and special trade representative in the Reagan administration. He would be a worthy debate competitor for Mr. Sarbanes, a Rhodes scholar, lawyer and one of the true intellectuals in today's Senate.

One reason behind this newspaper's endorsement of Mr. Brock in last Tuesday's GOP primary was our hope that this campaign, unlike so many others, would be one in which ideas predominated -- one in which voters would be given an in-depth glimpse into the thinking of each candidate on specific questions.

Serious, probing debate between them would be an edifying delight for Maryland voters. Said Mr. Brock in a letter to Mr. Sarbanes: "Without being presumptuous [editor's note -- of course, he was being just that], it might even renew a great tradition that began with the Lincoln-Douglas debates more than a century ago."

Even if Mr. Sarbanes is too cautious a politician to give his opponent the opening he seeks, voters would be well served if there were a shift from the 30-second sound bite to more substantive exchanges between these two candidates.

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