Wednesday, May 31, 2006

NJ Senate: Score One for Menendez

Action in New Jersey today, as appointed US Senator Bob Menendez, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the general election, issued a challenge to his GOP rival, state senator Tom Kean, Jr., to debate before the end of June. Here's the wording of the challenge, issued by Menendez campaign director Steve DeMicco:
"Even in the absence of details about the Hall Institute's proposed virtual debate, the Menendez for Senate campaign is happy to endorse and participate in an on-line forum on the critical issues in this year's election. We want to emphasize, however, that an on-line forum is no substitute for live, televised, real-time debates between the two major party candidates. And in that spirit, given the urgency of the issues and the magnitude of the choice in this campaign, we issue a challenge today for Tom Kean, Jr., should he become his party's nominee, to meet Senator Menendez in a one-hour debate before a statewide television audience, and to do so before the end of June. Given its experience in conducting debates in every major recent statewide election, we would suggest that New Jersey Network serve as lead sponsor of this debate.

"The Menendez campaign believes that debates are a critical tool for voters to use in comparing the candidates. Campaign debates and forums should be sponsored by television, radio and newspaper organizations that command a statewide audience. They should offer various formats. And they should encourage citizen participation at the same time that they invite informed and probing questions from journalists.

"Both campaigns should sit down to discuss these principles and other ideas for elevating the campaign dialogue. But in the meantime, we hope Tom Kean, Jr. accepts the challenge to debate Senator Menendez before the end of June."
This is a killer challenge: Bob Menendez has been a Member of Congress for 14 years, is a skilled orator, and is well-versed in virtually every policy issue likely to be discussed in a US Senate debate. Kean, on the other hand, has been a member of the New Jersey legislature for just five years, and is not known for a particularly dynamic speaking style. Perhaps more importantly, he has had no experience, other than his current campaign, in speaking to federal issues, and reporters in the New Jersey press corps are, shall we say, waiting with bated breath for evidence that he can do so comfortably, competently, and comprehensively.

The Menendez campaign knows this, and is confident that a one-on-one debate will show Kean Jr. to be unready for prime time.

Hence, the debate challenge -- about which, two observations:

First, the real audience for the debate challenge isn't the viewing public. They'll see campaign debates when they regularly see campaign debates -- in the fall, after Labor Day. No, the first test posed by the Menendez challenge is to Team Kean, and the challenge is this: How will you respond to our debate challenge?

That is, the Menendez campaign is rolling a hand grenade into the Kean campaign's headquarters, to see how Team Kean will react -- and, more importantly, to make sure the New Jersey press corps sees how the Kean campaign reacts.

The New Jersey press corps is the prism through which the vast majority of New Jersey voters will get the information on which they will base their voting decisions in November.

Second, we'll find out tomorrow whether or not the Kean campaign passed the test -- when we read in the New Jersey newspapers how the story is played, if it is played at all. The Kean campaign's immediate dismissal of the debate challenge as a "lame stunt" could become the dominant theme in the media (even though it's not actually a lame stunt -- it's a fairly smart, if predictable, stunt), or the Kean campaign's dismissal of the debate challenge could be taken by the press corps as a sign of weakness.

We'll know in the morning.

But until we find out if the New Jersey press corps falls for Team Kean's spin, this exchange leans toward Menendez. Score one for him.


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