Debate offer too good to refuse| Jerry Cornfield

If you’ve never tried to pull off a debate, it’s hard to appreciate the degree of difficulty involved in such a feat.

Many attempt it, most fail.

Scheduling conflict is the polite explanation typically issued by would-be organizers when efforts are abandoned.

The more likely reason is an incumbent balks because of the inherent risks associated with matching wits with an opponent in such a public manner.

But this year in Washington, there is an unprecedented undertaking to give finalists for governor and U.S. Senate a debate offer they simply can’t refuse. Or, viewed another way, an offer potentially too embarrassing and too politically damaging to reject.

An alliance of civic leaders, nonpartisan groups, media outlets, colleges, universities and a trove of established political forces including former Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican is behind the effort.

Known as the Washington State Debate Coalition, it draws its inspiration from the Indiana Debate Commission, a fixed integer in that state’s electoral equation since 2007.

The Washington coalition wants to hold six debates, three each in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. So far it’s penciled in four to take place immediately following the presidential debates on Sept. 26, Oct. 9 and Oct. 19 and the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 4.

And, in what qualifies as a bid achievement, affiliates of the major networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox as well as PBS and Spanish language stations all have agreed to carry them live, according to Diane Douglas, executive director of Seattle City Club which organized the coalition.

Now comes the hard part of securing sites, setting formats and confirming candidates in that order.

The coalition solicited requests from those wishing to host a debate and received 11 applications.

While she didn’t divulge specifics, Douglas said the 11 came from all over the state including Spokane, Bellingham, Pasco and King County. Selections will be made by a committee of coalition members by the end of June, she said.

When it comes to format, Douglas said the goal is to mix it up to ensure a lively and civil discourse. For example, one could be town hall style and another feature a panel of journalists asking questions. They want to involve the audience at each site and watching on television or online.

Format can be critical. Candidates want to exert as much influence as possible on such things as the amount of time for answers and rebuttals and whether candidates can quiz each other. Sometimes candidates want veto power on who asks the questions and I can attest to this personally will withdraw if they don’t like the panel.

Finally, getting candidates to commit is the last piece. That bridge has not been crossed with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and his Republican challenger, Bill Bryant, nor with Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray or her expected GOP foe, Chris Vance.

“We do not have commitments. We have not asked for commitments yet,” Douglas said. “We let them know of the dates…and asked them to hold them for us.”

They also made clear that the debates will proceed if at least one candidate vows to show up.

If one says yes and the other doesn’t, there will be an empty chair for the no-show.

“That’s the commitment,” Douglas said.

And that might be enough for the coalition to pull this off.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.