TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Democratic Party passed a resolution Monday urging a debate between Democratic candidates who qualify to run for governor, presumably Charlie Crist and Nan Rich.
The debate question has become an issue between Crist and Rich, and even their expected Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, is getting into the argument.
The fuss is a classic example of the insider political machinations by candidates surrounding televised debates, which can help or hurt a candidate’s chances.
Rich, a former state senator and liberal Democrat popular with the party’s base but not as well-known as Crist, has been demanding a debate with Crist. That could only help her by increasing her visibility and emphasizing her dedication to core Democratic issues.
Crist, a former Republican governor who looks like a strong favorite to win the Democratic nomination, has shown a frontrunner’s resistance to the a primary debate — why risk a public confrontation when he’s winning? But he also suggested after a recent confrontation with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera that he’s eager to debate Scott in the general election.
Most Democrats feel Crist, a more natural and articulate public speaker than Scott, would gain by a general election debate with Scott.
Scott, meanwhile, who’s happy for any political wrinkle that causes a problem for Crist, responded, in effect, that he’ll think about it after Crist debates Rich.
Local lawyer Michael Steinberg, a former Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairman, introduced the resolution at Monday night’s county party meeting, where it passed, he said, by a vote of about 26-12.
It called for a debate after the June 16-20 qualifying period with all qualifying Democratic candidates.
The Duval County party has passed a similar resolution, and Rich said she expects the parties in Orange and her home county, Broward, to consider them.
“They believe voters deserve to hear directly from the candidates, at the same time on the same stage,” she said.
If Crist refuses to debate her, Rich said, “It gives Rick Scott an excuse not to debate Charlie Crist” if he wins the primary.
Asked whether her campaign was pushing the resolutions, Rich didn’t answer, instead suggesting the question be put to Steinberg.
Steinberg denied the impetus came from Rich, though he acknowledged he’s “leaning” toward her in the primary, and he denied he was aiming to help either candidate.
“Unless there was a candidate who’s completely unknown or didn’t support Democratic values, we should urge all the candidates to debate,” he said.
Another former county party chairman, Chris Mitchell, who backs Crist, said he voted no because the resolution makes the county party appear to be taking sides in the primary.
“The (party) is interjecting into an ongoing conversation that one side has made their primary political argument at this point,” Mitchell said. “Whether they know it or not, they’re being used to advance one camp’s argument.”
Steinberg responded that a debate would be good for the party, and even for Crist, he said.
“It gives Rich supporters the feeling that it was a fair election” if Crist wins the primary, he said.
Mitchell said a Scott-Crist debate is inevitable even if Crist doesn’t debate Rich.
“The bottom line is that as incumbent governor, it’s on Rick Scott to explain his record. If he uses that excuse, it’s obviously just an excuse.”
Meantime, insiders in the Crist and Scott camps say the posturing over debates is mostly just that.
They said they believe Crist eventually will debate Rich, and Scott will debate Crist.
But Crist may want to put off a debate until near the Aug. 26 primary, so it will be more of a formality than an event that actually could boost Rich into competition with him. Scott may hope to limit debating to only one event, not two or three as in most recent governor’s races.