Challengers say some incumbents are avoiding debates

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(Host) The political debate season is in full swing. But challengers in two statewide races charge that the incumbents have avoided a face-to-face discussion of the issues.

VPR’s John Dillon has this look at the debate over debates.

(Dillon) By Election Day, Governor Jim Douglas will have debated his Democratic opponent at least 18 times. Wednesday was a double-header, with two debates on his schedule.

Jack McMullen, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, says incumbent Senator Patrick Leahy has by contrast avoided debates.

(McMullen) “It’s been 12 years since the senator has had to explain what he’s doing down there.”

(Dillon) The two major party candidates for U.S. Senate will only debate each other head to head once: on VPR’s Switchboard program. There are no statewide TV debates in which only McMullen and Leahy will face off. Their two TV debates – one on public television, the other on a public access cable channel – will feature all six candidates for U.S. Senate.

Six years ago, Leahy faced token opposition from retired farmer Fred Tuttle. So the challenger says Leahy owes it to the public to attend more debates.

(McMullen) “Obviously it would be something of interest for my campaign to have debates, but I think more important than my personal interest are the interests of the voters. What reason could he have for not doing it? I mean, obviously I’m a long-shot candidate but I am the nominee of the Republican Party and this is what the voters want to hear.”

(Dillon) Leahy charges that McMullen refused to debate his own challengers in the Republican primary. And the senator says it’s only fair to have all the candidates – including those from minor parties – on the stage for a debate.

(Leahy) “I did hear him say something that I haven’t had any debates for about 12 years. He seems to forget that six years ago he and I debated the same man, Fred Tuttle. He lost. I won.”

(Dillon) The debate issue has also come up in the race for lieutenant governor. Democrat Cheryl Rivers says Republican incumbent Brian Dubie has avoided a number of opportunities to face-off on the issues. Rivers wants Dubie to follow Governor Douglas’ example and agree to more debates.

(Rivers) “I think Brian Dubie has taken a page out of George Bush’s play book: don’t appear in front of any audience that isn’t carefully chosen and don’t allow yourself to be in front of an audience that might actually have some questions for you and where there might actually be statewide media present. There are very few instances where that has occurred during the course of the campaign. I think that’s really disappointing.”

(Dillon) But Dubie says he’s agreed to nine debates and will appear at four more candidate forums. On Wednesday, Dubie attended a Statehouse news conference with sponsors of a firearms safety lock program. He says public appearances like these keep his schedule full.

(Dubie) “I’m the lieutenant governor. I’ve got a lot of stuff going on as lieutenant governor. I have a job. I have four children. The governor’s kids are gone. Nine debates. When I ask Vermonters, what do you think about nine debates? they say: why are you doing so many debates for?”

(Dillon) Dubie says he’s running on his record, and that Vermonters know where he stands.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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