Biggest debate question of all
Will Chabot, Qualls have one?

Sunday, July 12, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you are a 1st Congressional District voter and you are looking forward to a lively round of debates this fall between Republican incumbent Steve Chabot and Democrat Roxanne Qualls, be warned. These debates, if they take place at all, will not be of the Lincoln-Douglas variety.

In 1858, when Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas criss-crossed the prairie towns of Illinois, there were no holds barred. They were free-wheeling, provocative, and they touched on every important issue of the day; and, in 1858, there were plenty.

But the Chabot-Qualls debates of 1998, if they ever materialize, are likely to be a bit more tightly scripted.

Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas, you see, did not have campaign consultants. In the 1st District race, Mr. Chabot's campaign has been calling for debates since the day Ms. Qualls announced her candidacy. It was unusual seeing an incumbent challenge the challenger; generally congressional incumbents avoid all contact with the enemy.

But the conservative Republican believes he is more in tune with the 1st District voters than his Democratic opponent, who, while she has been golden in the at-large city council elections, has never had a head-to-head election contest.

The Qualls campaign bobbed and weaved for months trying to avoid Mr. Chabot's insistence on debates. But last week, the pressure became too great and Qualls campaign manager Susan Thomas sent Chabot campaign manager Shannon Walker Jones a letter offering four debates in October, dates and venues to be named later.

But the Qualls campaign did not want debates on just any old topic, where the candidates could pounce on each other on every topic from Social Security to who should be starting quarterback for the Bengals.

And, oh yes, by the way, the Qualls campaign said, we want the debates to focus on our issues.

Ms. Thomas suggested four themes: "education and children," "economic development, infrastructure and the environment," "wages and income," and "health care and retirement security." All of these are issues either straight out of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's play book; or are issues that the mayor has talked about for years.

As you might imagine, Mr. Chabot has other topics he would like to discuss.

After Ms. Thomas submitted her topic list, Ms. Jones fired a rather cranky letter to Ms. Thomas saying that she was surprised Ms. Qualls "is not prepared to discuss a wide range of congressional issues; and that she can prepare to debate only one topic on a given day."

The Chabot campaign, which has a campaign strategy of painting Ms. Qualls a "tax-and-spend liberal," wants to talk about taxes (he hates 'em), partial birth abortions (again, to put the pro-abortion rights Democrat on the hot seat) and "criminal justice issues." Now, the Qualls campaign says it is not wedded to the four debate topics it proposed and will entertain other ideas; and it does appear now that the two campaign managers will sit down sometime soon and talk. There are, after all, plenty of groups who have already offered to host a debate in the Chabot-Qualls campaign, a key House race that is already getting national attention.

But getting the two sides to agree on subject matter, format and a hundred other picayune details could end up being more complicated than the Paris peace talks.

It need not be that complicated. The two candidates could, after all, just agree to show up at the same place at the same time on several nights this fall and let whoever shows up ask them questions until all the questions are answered.

But that would be far too simple.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at 768-8388; or by e-mail: