Political Insider

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You can lead a governor to cameras, but you can't make him debate

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Instances are scarce, perhaps as rare as a cop doing the speed limit, but every now and then, you come across a politician who would just rather not talk.

Gov. Nathan Deal has become one of them. It is only an occasional affliction. Our governor is an easy conversationalist in front of small groups, and large ones, too. TV cameras provoke nothing but calm and a smooth river of words.

But offer Deal a chance to appear on stage with his two Republican primary opponents, and the governor becomes as halting as a greenhorn at his first Toastmasters meeting.

The GOP incumbent this week hit the mute button on his participation in a debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, which will be aired statewide on Georgia Public Broadcasting. Likewise, the governor has turned back an invitation by Channel 2 Action News for a forum the weekend before the May 20 vote.

(The APC/GPB and WSB debates will air without him as empty-podium affairs, on May 14 and May 18, respectively. On Thursday, a debate in Cherokee County will go on sans Deal.)

Incumbents and frontrunners do not like debates, and Deal is both. It is a strategic issue that bridges ideology. Democrat Michelle Nunn, throughout most of the season, has avoided appearances with her underfunded U.S. Senate rivals. But she has accepted an APC/GPB invitation, and is weighing another from WSB.

Scheduling conflicts are the usual smokescreen. “Gov. Deal will be unable to attend as he has long-standing prior commitments that day,” was the note sent to the Atlanta Press Club.

But short of funerals for blood kin and some surgical procedures, a candidate is always in control of his calendar – and thus is always where he wants, or needs, to be. This is especially true of governors.

Jen Talaber, spokeswoman for the Deal campaign, confirmed that her boss is in charge of his own time. “The governor is choosing to govern and not campaign,” she said. At this time of year, “governing” means crossing the state for bill-signing ceremonies before large and appreciative crowds. Wholly different from campaigning, you understand.

But in politics, if you’re winning, then a debate becomes nothing but an inconvenient opportunity to say something you might regret. A debate also brings a certain measure of equality to a contest that a front-running candidate has often spent millions of dollars trying to undermine.

As a shopper, you might see a debate as a sensible venue for comparison shopping. Frontrunners would argue that showrooms for shiny Cadillacs aren’t obliged to also display used Fords.

Occasionally, they have a point. In 2006, Gov. Sonny Perdue declined to debate his GOP primary opponent, neo-Confederate Ray McBerry. Few complained.

But when it comes to deeming his opponents unworthy, Perdue’s successor is in a more awkward spot. Though neither has much money, David Pennington and John Barge can’t be dismissed as irrelevant cranks. Until recently, Pennington was the elected mayor of Dalton. Barge, the state school superintendent, has as many statewide elections under his belt as Deal.

Frustration on the part of Deal’s opponents is showing.

On Wednesday, Pennington stood outside the governor’s office in the state Capitol, in front of a phalanx of summoned TV cameras, to accuse Deal of ethical breeches that — he claimed — dwarf Watergate.

Pennington also chided the governor for being unwilling to face him in verbal combat. “I think the citizens and voters have a right to see and compare the candidates in open debate. We’ve been doing it in this country for 240 years,” he said.

But it turns out that if you give a governor 24 hours’ notice, he will get himself lawyered up. Deal himself was downstate, doing some pen-and-ink governing, but his attorney, Randy Evans, showed up to loudly accuse Pennington of doing – well, something mysterious that allegedly involved bankruptcy and offshore accounts. There are large gaps in Evans’ indictment.

The governor’s attorney demanded sealed court records and tax returns. He might have included polygraphs, if he’d thought of it. It was enough to flummox Deal’s challenger, and after Pennington departed, Evans took over the microphones.

“If you want to be considered a real candidate, if you want to be somebody that Republicans in Georgia actually think deserve to be on the same podium with a governor this transparent, then walk the walk,” Evans said.

All right, said a reporter, that may be your case against Pennington. But what was the governor’s objection to debating Barge?

The governor’s attorney said he wasn’t prepared to address that.

Debate or no debate, Deal is all but sure to triumph next month. The general election campaign would begin May 21. During this last session of the Legislature, state Sen. Jason Carter, Deal’s Democratic challenger, showed some rhetorical chops that caused some of the governor’s aides to sit up straight.

Carter is “eager” to debate the governor, spokesman Bryan Thomas said. “We believe he should answer for his record – and not just in videos or on TV. If the governor, right now, wants to debate Jason – name the time and place, and we’ll be there.”

But some patience will be necessary. “Governor Deal will definitely debate Jason Carter at the appropriate time in the fall,” said Talaber, Deal’s campaign spokeswoman.

So we’re not talking a series in the vein of the Lincoln-Douglas confrontations. Maybe just one debate, for all the marbles.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.