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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Akaka-Case debate? Both would face risks

By David Shapiro

The Democratic U.S. Senate race between Sen. Daniel Akaka and Rep. Ed Case could turn into a debate about debates as the September primary approaches.

The underdog Case, who needs the visibility of televised debates to show off his political polish and relative youth, lobbies for face-to-face encounters every chance he gets.

Akaka, 82, has been noncommittal, however, about sharing a stage with his 53-year-old challenger.

It's too early in the campaign for voters to focus on debates, but pressure will mount as the election draws closer.

Akaka's reluctance is not surprising; such forums have never been his strong suit.

He shied away from debating Pat Saiki in his last contested election 16 years ago, when he was considerably quicker on his feet.

A debate against Case could be disastrous if he were to stumble and show his age in front of a statewide television audience.

But if Akaka ducks Case, he risks leaving an impression that he doesn't have enough left to stand up to the pressure of tough questioning on live TV.

It also could raise concerns about his ability to do the job; if he's afraid to debate his opponent, how can he participate effectively in the daily debates in Congress?

Case faces his own debate risks, although he has less to lose.

Mainly, he could alienate voters if he came across as mean, strident or disrespectful of the well-liked Akaka.

And there are issues that set up better for Akaka most notably, the unpopular war in Iraq.

Akaka was among a minority of senators who voted against authorizing President Bush to go to war in 2002.

He explains his reasons clearly and concisely, and his stand looks prophetic to many voters three years later.

Case, on the other hand, gets speculative and convoluted when explaining that he wasn't in Congress in 2002, but would have voted for the war if he'd been there.

While agitating for debates, Case has been curiously thin-skinned about candid discussions of issues in the campaign.

When Akaka pointed out their opposing votes on Republican tax cuts he voted against and Case voted for Case whined about "negative campaigning."

Honest give-and-take on issues is not negative campaigning; it's what campaigns are for.

If it hurts Case's feelings to engage in frank discussion of fair issues such as tax policy, what's the point of a debate?

It's reminiscent of his 2004 run for re-election against Mike Gabbard, when Case kept issuing ominous warnings of negative attacks from Gabbard that never really came.

In fact, public letters Case wrote to Gabbard making insinuations about his background and religious affiliation came closer to negative campaigning than anything Gabbard ever did.

It's good political fun to speculate about the outcome of debates before they occur, but you never know how they will turn out.

In the 1980 presidential debates, Jimmy Carter was clearly more glib and knowledgeable than the older Ronald Reagan, but Reagan carried the day with a folksy style and sense of humor that connected with voters.

In Hawai'i's 1998 gubernatorial debate, Linda Lingle was a far more polished speaker than Gov. Ben Cayetano, but Cayetano won out by hammering Lingle on the specifics of her proposals and catching her being vague.

Only Akaka knows what he's capable of, and whether or not he debates likely depends on what his polls show.

If Akaka thinks he's comfortably ahead, he'll probably avoid the risk of debating and count on the loyalty of old-line Democrats, unions and Native Hawaiians to bring him home.

But if the race looks close, he may have no choice but to take the gamble.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.