If U.S. Senate candidate Paul Van Dam could name one thing that has disappointed him most about this campaign season so far — besides his dismal poll results — it would be how little he's actually seen of his opponent.
If it weren't for all those billboards around town reminding us of Bob Bennett's physical flaws and personal values, the Democratic challenger would barely even know he had an opponent.
"It's just becoming readily apparent that he's not participating in the process, and he's certainly not giving any information on what his stands are," Van Dam said. "It's just an unusual thing. In all of my campaigning (two previous races), I've never seen such an absence of my opponent."
That will change today. With three weeks left before election day, the two Senate candidates will go head-to-head for the first time, launching a packed two-week schedule, which includes at least seven debates, including appearances on Utah's three main TV stations and a couple of radio duels.
Bennett's campaign insists the scheduled debates will give ample opportunity for the two to discuss issues. Greg Hopkins, Bennett's Utah-based political consultant from the Potomac Group, said the senator is engaged in "an aggressive grass-roots campaign" and is not pre-emptively counting his chickens. Bennett's campaign, he pointed out, is getting organized at the county and precinct levels to ensure voter turnout.
But Van Dam isn't the only one complaining. Democrat Steve Thompson is charging Rep. Rob Bishop of "kind of running a lazy campaign" in the 1st Congressional District race. Thompson understands Congress has been in session and his opponent has not had an opportunity to attend weekday events, but he said Bishop's camp was unseen until an Oct. 7 showing in North Ogden.
And like Van Dam, Thompson believes voters would get a better idea of the differences between the two candidates if they appeared together more often. Also, it would give citizens a chance to talk to their congressman.
Incumbency does present a challenge, as Bennett and others in Utah's congressional delegation running for re-election have been doing the jobs they were elected to do in Washington, D.C. But their challengers say that excuse can be abused.
"It denies the voters the opportunity to compare the candidates," Thompson said. "If you spend all of your time in Washington, D.C., behind a desk, you lost touch with your constituents."
The huge leads held by Utah's four members of Congress probably doesn't help the cause of challengers hoping for more joint appearances outside of scheduled debates. According to the last Deseret Morning News/KSL poll, the closest Congressional race is in the 3rd District, and that's a 28-point rout.
Van Dam charges that Bennett already believes he has the election in the bag because of his 39-point lead.
"I think he's taking it for granted, is my impression," Van Dam said. "I understand he can do that given the numbers he has, but I think it's neglectful and disrespectful of the electorate."
Hopkins said the two-term senator knows better than to assume he's won the race with three weeks left in the campaign.
"You always worry up until election night that people will get apathetic about it," Hopkins said, referring to the big lead Bennett enjoys. "We're quite optimistic, but we're not taking anything for granted."
Hopkins also refuted that Bennett was sending members of his campaign staff to help in tighter races elsewhere in the country. The Van Dam campaign had heard from its sources that Bennett's staff was helping Republican John Thune's campaign against Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle in South Dakota — a key national race.
"There's no substance to those rumors. We don't have any staffers working on any other campaign," Hopkins said. "The Daschle race would be a logical place to send somebody, but we didn't think about that."
Senate debate schedule
Republican Sen. Bob Bennett vs. Democratic challenger Paul Van Dam
Today, noon, Dixie State University
Oct. 20, 6 p.m., Ch. 4
Oct. 24, 5:30 p.m., Ch. 2
Oct. 26, noon, Downtown Marriott (75. S. West Temple)
Oct. 26, 2:30 p.m., KBYU
Oct. 27, 5:30 p.m., Ch. 5
Oct. 28, 10:30 a.m., KUER/Hinckley Institute of Politics, U. of U., OSH 255
Oct. 30, 6 p.m., KUED
Contributing: Josh Loftin