Let the Games Begin
The two candidates have tentatively agreed to four debates over the next two months.
The first is this Sunday (Sept. 3rd) on the Tim Russert-hosted Meet the Press.
(In Philadelphia, the program airs at 10:30 a.m. on WCAU-TV. In Pittsburgh, on WPXI-TV at 10:30 a.m. In Harrisburg-Lancaster-York, on WGAL-TV at 10 a.m. In Johnstown-Altoona on WJAC-TV at 9 a.m. In Erie on WICU and in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on WBRE-TV, both at 10 a.m.)
In addition, Bob Casey and U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum will meet in a televised debate in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12th, to be televised on KDKA-TV. They will meet again, on Oct. 16th in Philadelphia for a radio debate on KYW-AM and a televised debate later that dayon WPVI-TV.
So, there you have it.
Now, the question before the court is: So what? In the coming weeks, when the airwaves are drenched in Casey and Santorum campaign commercials, will these sparsely-viewed debates make any difference?
I can remember one debate that did make a big difference, but firwst we have to step into the Way Back Machine and set it for 1986. It was the race for governor, Bob Casey Sr. vs. Bill Scranton 3d, one of the most tightly-fought gubernatorial races in the state's history.
All through that fall, Casey and Scranton see-sawed for the lead in the public polls. At the time, drawing from my kit bag of analogies, I likened their fight to two guys trying to scamper up a steep slope in slippery shoes. One would take a few steps forward, then fall back. The other would inch ahead, then slip back.
In mid-October, Scranton seized the initiative -- and, frankly, flummoxed the Casey campaign, by vowing to cease and desist from all negative campaigning. It was a tactic designed to serve two purposes: bolster the Republican among voters who were sick of negative ads and to inoculate him against the negative Casey ads (that the Casey campaign had in the can) that dealt with Scranton's younger years as, to use an antique phrase, a pot-smoking hippy and his record as a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation.
Against this backdrop, the two candidates met on Oct. 22 for a debate in Philadelphia that was broadcast statewide. Viewing the debate in the studion, I thought both candidates acquitted themselves well. But, Casey clearly came across as the more conservative of the two -- he declared himself four-square against abortion. He opposed sale of the state Liquor Stores. He also opposed merit selection of judges.
Within a few days, the private poll numbers showed Scranton pulling ahead -- due mostly to a shift among women voters to the Republican gubernatorial candidate. As one Casey consultant told me at the time: it was as if every woman in the state went to the supermarket the next day and talked about how conservative Casey was.
Casey ended up winning that race, but the Casey-Scranton debate in Philadelphia was a debate that made a difference.