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Sittenfeld Still Pushing For Debates; Strickland Still Saying No

Here’s the fact of the matter:

The likelihood of a televised debate between Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Ted Strickland and P.G. Sittenfeld between now and the March 15 primary election are about as good as a Mars Rover finding a race of Ice Warriors on the Red Planet.

That would be slim to none; and slim’s left town.

Cincinnati’s WCPO-TV, and WXVU, have asked the campaigns to participate in a televised debate, at a site and in a format to be agreed upon by the two campaigns.

Sittenfeld, who is by every conceivable measure the underdog in this contest, said yes, yes, and yes.

This is a 31-year-old guy in the middle of his second term on Cincinnati City Council who decided early last year to dive head-first into a Democratic primary contest that will decide who will run in November against Republican incumbent Rob Portman. A guy who was (and still is, to a somewhat lesser extent) a total unknown to Ohioans who do not live in the Cincinnati media market.

Which is, in fact, most Ohioans.

And he found himself taking on the 74-year-old former congressman and one-term governor from Scioto County, Ted Strickland, who lost the governor’s office to John Kasich in 2010 by two percentage points but who is still well-known to most Ohioans, especially Democratic primary voters.

While Sittenfeld was jumping all over the WCPO-WVXU proposal, the Strickland was playing it cool.

In a telephone interview with WVXU Friday, Strickland made one thing clear - there will be no debates with Sittenfeld. 

"This primary is going to be over in a relatively short period of time,'' Strickland said. "I intend to focus my attention, my time, on Rob Portman.

"I am not going to allow myself to be distracted by anything like that,'' Strickland said of the idea of debating Sittenfeld.

And what if other media outlets and organizations around the state begin issuing invitations, as they will almost certainly do?

The answer from the Strickland campaign?

“We would respond the same way today if we got the same request from a different outlet,’’ Bergstein said.

Keeping up the drumbeat for debates is about all the Sittenfeld campaign can do at this point.

Sittenfeld would accept a debate invitation if it were shown on HGTV in the middle of the Super Bowl. Anything to get on the same stage, at the same time, with Strickland – to draw some attention to his campaign. A Hail Mary pass to the end zone.

“My question to the Strickland campaign is simple,’’ said Dale Butland, a spokesman for the Sittenfeld campaign. “Gov. Strickland is a big supporter of Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton has agreed to no less than six debates with her opponents, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. If Hillary Clinton can face her opponents, why can’t Ted Strickland?”

The last statewide poll, done in October by Quinnipiac University, showed that 86 percent of Ohio voters said they did not know enough about Sittenfeld to form an opinion of him – good, bad or indifferent.

You really don’t win statewide races when nearly nine of every 10 voters have no idea who you are.

The same Quinnipiac Poll showed that Strickland still had a three percentage point lead over Portman – which was exactly the margin of error in the poll. Earlier Quinnipiac Polls had Strickland with larger leads – six percentage points in June, nine percentage point in April.

None of which does Sittenfeld much good – he trailed Portman by 22 percentage points in October.

Sittenfeld is running out of time to catch Strickland, who has the backing of the Ohio Democratic Party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and most of the establishment Democratic figures in Ohio.

We are only 10 weeks and two days away from this election.

Would it make any sense at all for Strickland to agree to debates with Sittenfeld at this point?

Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, said “99 of 100 political advisers” would tell Strickland to ignore Sittenfeld’s pleas for debates.

But, Mariani said, there is an argument to be made for Strickland agreeing to at least one debate, if not more.

“Once Strickland wins the primary, he’s going to want to consolidate support in the party,’’ Mariani said. “A lot of young people are supporting Sittenfeld and they are the people who work in Democratic campaigns.

“A little bit of graciousness and respect for your opponent could go a long way toward bringing those people to Ted’s side,’’ Mariani said.

Mariani said Strickland could look at debates with Strickland as a “tune-up” for the general election campaign, when he is unlikely to be able to avoid debates with Portman. The Republican incumbent is an experienced debater who has been called on by Republican presidential and vice presidential candidates over the years to play the roles of Democratic opponents in debate preparations.

After all, it has been six years since Strickland has been on the campaign trail. He might be a bit rusty.

But, Mariani said, there are arguments against accepting debates with Sittenfeld as well. First and foremost, why give a statewide platform to an opponent who is a virtual unknown. Secondly, why take the risk of making a mistake that will come back to haunt you in a general election campaign?

Mariani said he doubts seriously that there will be debates between now and March 15. But, he said, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.

“I’ve always thought there’s a responsibility these candidates have to the voters to have at least one debate, at least one chance to see them side-by-side and hear them talk about the issues,’’ Mariani said. “I don’t think that is too much to ask.”

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.