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Lots of talk, few debates in 6th District race
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
October 17, 2002


The race in Minnesota's 6th congressional district is one of the most expensive and hotly contested in the nation. Incumbent Republican Mark Kennedy and Democrat Janet Robert are spending millions of dollars on advertising. Independence Party candidate Dan Becker says he's also working hard to get known in the district, which reaches from St. Cloud southeast to Stillwater. Yet the candidates in the 6th District have yet to have a formal debate.

Dan Becker, the Independence Party candidate counts as many as 20 debates and forums in the past few months where he has been the only candidate to show up.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

This is the story of the debate that wasn't.

The Elk River Chamber of Commerce had hoped they might be the first to get all the candidates in one place recently. It might have been a nice change of pace for a race that most voters know mostly through angry TV ads.

Republican Mark Kennedy says he's eager to debate the other two candidates. But his schedule is unpredictable until Congress adjourns. In the end, he couldn't commit to a Saturday in Elk River.

"We've been saying for quite some time that we're looking forward to debating once we get out session. Our calendar is very fluid," Kennedy said.

Stillwater lawyer and DFL candidate Janet Robert claims Kennedy is avoiding the debates. She says the Elk River debate is proof. When she found out Kennedy would not be coming, she cancelled her appearance in favor of a visit to her son's college.

"I was told he wasn't going to show up because he had to be in DC. So my campaign staff and I, we decided, 'You know, we're not going to keep going this. We're going to give Mark Kennedy a chance to show up, and be there.' Well I showed up to Parents' Weekend, I went up to see my son at St. John's. And who did I run into at the football game, but Mark Kennedy," Robert said.

Kennedy is a St. John's alumnus. Robert says she asked him point-blank at the St. John's football game if he is afraid to debate her. Kennedy says no, he's not afraid. But he says the Robert campaign also shouldn't depend so heavily on debates to educate voters.

"I am concerned that there is a question that she is afraid to state where she stands on issues. To rely on debates as the only vehicle for getting out your stand on the issues is the true cowardly way to approach a campaign," Kennedy says.

Meanwhile that day, the Chamber of Commerce still gathered in Elk River and contemplated the sound of one man debating.

"I went on and debated myself," says Independence Party candidate Dan Becker, who has appeared solo at a number of these events. The St. Cloud drug counselor counts as many as 20 debates and forums in the past few months where he has been the only candidate to show up.

"It's probably not a good strategy for the person that's ahead to give that added attention to the challenger."

- Bob Weber, political science professor

"I don't have the big television dollars that they're spending to get their message out, or to get an anti-message about the other candidates. I don't have that. So I do need those forums and debates," he says.

Political scientist Bob Weber at St. John's University says it wouldn't surprise him if Kennedy is playing coy.

"I would suspect that Mark Kennedy's ahead, in terms of the polls and name identification and visibility and things of that sort, and if that's the case the conventional wisdom is it's probably not a good strategy for the person that's ahead to give that added attention to the challenger," according to Weber.

Weber says the lack of debates is just one element of a race that seems generally devoid of substance. The candidates disagree, saying they've been talking issues one-on-one as they shake hands at campaign stops. Kennedy also touts new information on his campaign Web site.

But Weber worries most voters can only fall back on their party identification and the impressions they have from attack ads. Even if voters don't watch debates, they tend to generate news coverage that reaches a wider audience. And Weber thinks its important that candidates interact with each other directly.

"I think the voters also lose out in terms of the personal contact of sizing up the candidates, finding out what they're really like as human beings, as people, in addition to their positions on issues," he says.

As long as Mark Kennedy does not appear, Janet Robert says she can make a stronger statement by abstaining from debates and forums than by showing up. Once again that leaves Dan Becker, who will continue to appear at every event he can.

There are still a number of tentative debates on the schedule. As Congress adjourns and Kennedy is free to campaign full-time, the candidates may yet appear together before Nov. 5.

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