Peter Blake

Tancredo…and the debate over debating

Today’s political science quiz: Was it smart of gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo to refuse to participate in primary debates against his Republican rivals?

It’s a matter of political strategy, not principle, so whatever tactic wins is right. The correct answer can’t be known until after the election.

The November election that is, not the June primary.   According to political strategist Dick Wadhams, you need to debate fellow Republicans to prepare you for the campaign against the Democrat.

If Tancredo wins the nomination but ends up losing to incumbent John Hickenlooper, he was wrong.

In revealing his strategy last week, Tancredo told the Denver Post he won’t debate primary rivals in order to “reduce the number of self-inflicted wounds” that Democrats can use against the GOP nominee in the fall.

Not everyone agrees with Wadhams.  “You can’t argue with Tom’s reasoning,” said political consultant Katy Atkinson, who managed Bruce Benson’s 1994 campaign for governor. “It’s not the most productive way to spend your life, debating in front of an audience of 12, maybe.”

She tried to forgo Republican primary debates altogether but she got “so much heat from sponsoring organizations” that she had to give in and let Benson participate in a couple.

Tancredo will have to be able to resist that kind of GOP pressure if he is going to keep his no-debates pledge.

Benson handily won his primary, swamping state Sen. Mike Bird and stockbroker Dick Sargent.  But the lack of debates killed him in the fall.

After a couple of disastrous performances against Democratic incumbent Roy Romer — he couldn’t duck those — Benson announced he wouldn’t do any more of the eight debates still on the schedule.  Atkinson delivered what she called a “master debater” award — it looked like a bowling-league trophy — to Romer’s campaign headquarters in early October.

That surrender cooked Benson’s campaign.   He was already behind and only the front-runner can get away with ducking debates.  Romer swamped him.

Wadhams ran Bill Owens’ successful campaign for governor in 1998 after helping Wayne Allard win a U.S. Senate race in 1996.   Both were re-elected in 2002 and were the last Republicans to serve as either governor or senator.

“I’m kinda bewildered by Tancredo’s announcement,” Wadhams said. Both of his candidates had very competitive primaries in their first go-round: Owens against Senate President Tom Norton, R-Greeley, and Allard against Attorney General Gale Norton (no relation to Tom).

Primary debates, said Wadhams, “not only were not detrimental to their candidacies, they were critical to their being able to win a general election.”

The debates “sharpened their ability to talk about issues, to challenge their opponents.”

Allard defeated Tom Strickland, a Denver attorney who specialized in environmental issues, and Owens squeaked by Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler.

Wadhams said he was “perplexed” by Tancredo’s unwillingness to debate “because I had never bought off on this notion that primaries had defeated Republican candidates for the last 12 years.”

The GOP lost not because of competitive primaries “but because our candidates were undisciplined, or they couldn’t articulate why they were running, or they ran in a bad year.”

That was 2008, when Barack Obama entranced the electorate and even Republican voters were disenchanted with Bush 43.

Republicans who say “these horrible primaries are killing us” forget that the two Nortons, after losing their primaries, immediately and enthusiastically backed the people who beat them, Wadhams noted.

Owens, in fact, ended up appointing Tom Norton as head of his transportation department, perhaps his most important cabinet position.  Owens had campaigned on expanding Interstate 25 through the south Denver metro area.  Had the T-Rex construction project hopelessly tied up traffic every rush hour he would have been ousted in 2002, but it went smoothly and he won re-election.

Former state Sen. Cliff Dodge, who’s managing Tancredo’s campaign just as he did in 2010, said his candidate not only won’t debate his Republican rivals, he won’t even show up if they’re invited to the same event.

“We will not share the stage,” Dodge said.  “We will not give people like Mr. (Greg) Brophy the opportunity, every time, to take shots at him.  It’s not in the best interest of the Republican Party, so to hell with it.”

Brophy, along with former state Sen. Mike Kopp and Secretary of State Scott Gessler, are Tancredo’s main rivals.

It’s not like Tancredo is ducking regular Republican events.   “We will go to all Lincoln Day dinners that we are invited to be the speaker at,” he said, emphasizing the “the.”

Dodge maintains Tancredo asked his rivals to sign a pledge that they would honor the GOP’s “Eleventh Commandment:” Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” But all refused.

They’ll all attack Tancredo because he’s the front runner, said Dodge . There’s no reason to let them do it, “because Tom’s not going to respond back.”

“Our enemy is Hickenlooper, so that’s who we’re going to focus on.”

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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