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What’s all the fuss about the Utah Debate Commission?

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Elections are less than a month away. A new dynamic for 2014 is the Utah Debate Commission, which is providing an organized framework for statewide and federal candidates to debate face-to-face.

Elections are less than a month away. A new dynamic for 2014 is the Utah Debate Commission, which is providing an organized framework for statewide and federal candidates to debate face-to-face.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Elections are less than a month away. A new dynamic for 2014 is the Utah Debate Commission, which is providing an organized framework for statewide and federal candidates to debate face-to-face.

The commission represents all the major media outlets (Paul Edwards from the Deseret News is a member), universities and involves a bevy of retired politicians. They successfully crafted a schedule for debates broadcast on TV, radio, streamed over the Internet and covered by newspapers. But questions remain to be answered:

Do debates really matter?

Pignanelli and Webb: "Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.” — Hubert H. Humphrey

In most elections, debates have limited impact on results. However, many examples exist where debates made all the difference. And it is always important for voters to hear the issues and size up the candidates.

In some cases, a presidential candidate scored so well in a debate, or blundered so miserably, that the trajectory of an election — and the nation’s history — was changed. These include the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon match; the 1980 exchange between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter; Michael Dukakis flubbing the death penalty question in 1988; and the impatience exhibited by George H.W. Bush and Al Gore, in 1992 and 2000, respectively.

Local debates also matter. Throughout the summer of 1988, incumbent Gov. Norm Bangerter was predicted to lose his re-election bid. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson was expected to deliver the death blow before his fellow municipal officials in a debate at the September Utah League of Cities & Towns conference. But Bangerter exuded such confidence and grasp of the issues that he advanced a re-examination of his administration and was re-elected.

Third-term U.S. Sen. Frank Moss was one of the most powerful politicos in the country and a favorite for re-election in 1976. But in the first debate he came off as frumpy and a creature of Washington. His opponent was a young, fresh-faced lawyer who deftly articulated Utah values. Orrin Hatch never looked back after that confrontation.

Every politico knew that young attorney Bill Orton could not succeed in his bid for the Utah County-based 3rd Congressional District in 1990. But many business and community leaders were impressed with this Democrat’s insightful knowledge and vision he articulated in matchups with State Sen. Karl Snow. When the Snow campaign committed a major stumble, Orton’s debate results gave him a base of support to achieve the impossible.

Political debate in Utah is an integral part of our history, and must be kept alive.

Political debates have existed in Utah for decades, so is the commission really needed?

Pignanelli: The commission is admirable, but its creation is not without controversy. Several organizations that sponsored debates over the years are irritated the commission is usurping their traditional roles. A chief critic is the Utah League of Cities & Towns, an organization with the horsepower to compel candidates to debate before 1,000 municipal officials every election cycle in the last three decades. The league hosted the 2012 gubernatorial debate and funded media coverage through the state’s most pervasive radio program of over 300,000 Utah listeners — the "Doug Wright Show."

Veteran politicos quietly grumble that most of the politician commission members lost a major race and may have an ax to grind. Further, polls indicate that a candidate's refusal to participate in debates does not harm his or her election potential. So the commission will need to navigate around these issues to establish greater relevancy for the 2016 elections.

Webb: The commission has clearly generated significant visibility for its debates, with most major media outlets participating. I pick only two nits: First, the commission debates give incumbents and front-runners an excuse to avoid other debates that, in the past, were sponsored by a variety of organizations. Front-runners don’t like to give their opponents the visibility and stature that comes with frequent debates. By participating in the commission debates, they can say (and are saying) they’ve done their debate duty and can refuse other debates. Second, the final 4th District debate between Mia Love and Doug Owens comes so late (Oct. 14) that many people will have already voted by mail. On balance, the Debate Commission is a good idea and is generating interest in the election.

The Debate Commission refused participation of candidates who have little support. Some of these candidates have filed a complaint with two federal agencies claiming a breach of "equal access." Do the rejected candidates have a legitimate beef?

Pignanelli: A political party is more than a malcontent on the ballot. The two major political parties are active participants in public policy deliberations. Until third parties engage with the community, their exclusion from debates is appropriate.

Webb: The commission’s threshold for debate participation makes sense. Multiple participants, most of whom have zero chance of winning, result in a trivial debate.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. Email:lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Email:frankp@xmission.com.