POSTED: 12:56 a.m. HST, May 20, 2012
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono will appear with former U.S. Rep. Ed Case at five joint forums and debates before the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in August, but she agreed to only one televised forum and bypassed debates offered by the state's major news outlets.
Hirono announced Thursday that she accepted forum and debate invitations from the Oahu County Democrats, the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, the Maui AARP, Hawaii Public Radio and PBS Hawaii but declined requests from the commercial news media. Case, who has pressed Hirono for debates for several months, also accepted the five invitations but described the debate schedule as an "insult to the voters of Hawaii."
DEBATE SCHEDULEU.S. Senate 2012 primary
» May 25: Joint forum by the Oahu County Democrats
» May 29: Joint forum by the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association
» June 12: Debate hosted by the Maui AARP
» June 13: Radio debate sponsored by Hawaii Public Radio
» June 14: Televised candidate forum hosted by PBS Hawaii
Hirono, who leads in public opinion polls, fundraising and endorsements, chose a schedule that appears to minimize the potential for the debates to have a dramatic influence on the primary. They are set for late May and early June, two months before the Aug. 11 primary, enough time for either candidate to recover from a poor performance.
Public radio and public television also have a far narrower reach than commercial news media.
Case, who had asked Hirono for more than two dozen debates, wants the largest number of debates and the widest reach possible in part to help offset Hirono's lopsided financial advantage. Hirono has raised $2.5 million, while Case has collected more than $600,000, so the congresswoman will have greater ability to get her message to voters through paid advertising.
Hirono's decision to decline debate invitations from the commercial news media is unusual for a statewide political campaign but not unprecedented. Case made the lack of debates an issue in his unsuccessful primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in 2006. Akaka agreed to a single televised debate on PBS Hawaii, and while most political analysts believed Case was more effective at answering questions, the debate did not change the course of the primary.
"I look forward to having a conversation with the people of Hawaii about my plans to help our families through these challenging times, protect Social Security and Medicare for our kupuna, strengthen our economy, and create a more sustainable future for our state," Hirono said in a statement. "I'm pleased that these debates and joint forums will include a neighbor island debate, and sponsorships by public radio and public television."
Case said Hirono's campaign slogan should be "No Debates; Just Watch My Commercials." He said he believes the congresswoman purposely rejected debates on commercial television stations that would have had the potential to attract the most voters.
"Obviously, she just doesn't want to engage with the voters or with me. And the question is, Why? What's she afraid of?" he said. "I think it's not just a matter of giving the voters a fair look at us. It's also about, Can you do the job of a United States senator? Because this is part of that job, a crucial part of that job.
"It's the world's greatest deliberative body. You've got to be able to stand up, without handlers, without spin, without a teleprompter, without notes, and defend, advocate, discuss, decide, move forward."
The live televised forum is scheduled for June 14 on "Insights," a PBS Hawaii show moderated by Dan Boylan, a political analyst and columnist for MidWeek who is a retired history professor at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu.
Hawaii News Now and the Star-Advertiser offered Hirono and Case statewide television debate opportunities. KITV and Civil Beat, and KHON also offered to sponsor debates.
Debates give voters the chance to evaluate candidates side by side and see how they handle questions under pressure. While strong debate performances — or gaffes — can leave lasting impressions, debates are rarely game-changers.
Political strategists have also complained in recent years that some of the debates hosted by the commercial news media have drifted too much into entertainment.