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Woster: Bring on the debate, anywhere, anytime

Sometimes when candidates are together in a public forum, voters catch glimpses of what the people inside the candidates’ suits really are like. Not always, but sometimes.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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I read in the newspaper that Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and her Democrat challenger, Jamie Smith, have agreed to one debate before the general election.

Perhaps other joint appearances will surface before November, but I haven’t heard that. That’s too bad. I’m one who favors a whole bunch of joint appearances during campaigns. I think it should be a campaign priority.

I recognize that joint appearances can be little more than opportunities for each candidate to regurgitate talking points, no matter the questions. Even so, sometimes when candidates are together in a public forum, voters catch glimpses of what the people inside the candidates’ suits really are like. Not always, but sometimes.

Even if that weren’t so, every candidate is out there asking to be hired — or rehired, in the case of incumbents — to work for the people who elect them. How many of us would hire — or rehire — an employee who didn’t agree to an in-person interview about the job? Seriously.

I haven’t covered a political campaign as a newspaper reporter for a while, but I reported in every election between 1970 and 2008. I covered more debates and other joint appearances than I can count. Some were memorable. Some were not. The race for governor in 2002 was a memorable one for me. I covered nearly 30 joint appearances and debates.

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That was the year Bill Janklow finished the last of his four terms (two beginning in 1979 and two beginning in 1995). The governor’s seat was open, which is kind of a rarity. Candidates lined up to file petitions the way families line up to ride the Matterhorn at Disneyland.

Four Democrats - Jim Abbott, Ron Volesky, Jim Hutmacher and Robert Hockett — qualified for the ballot. Three Republicans — Steve Kirby, Mark Barnett and Mike Rounds — made the ballot on their side. All of the candidates wanted to build name recognition, to connect with voters, to stand out from the crowd. All were willing to go just about anywhere, anytime, for a joint appearance, especially during the primary campaign.

In a public back-and-forth announcing the debate, scheduled for Sept. 30 in Rapid City, the gubernatorial candidates previewed some lines of attack to watch when they meet on stage.

On the Republican side, Rounds was the least known with the least money — at first, for sure. He found ways to stand out. He refused to pledge never to raise gas taxes. He refused to attack the other Republicans.

Early on, the other two ignored him, even when the three were on the same stage. Time came, though, when I was interviewing one of the others and he mentioned Rounds in a critical way. I called Rounds for a response. “Wow, they mentioned me by name?’’ was his first reaction. People began to talk about the guy who wouldn’t go negative, and he began moving up the charts. Secretary of State records document his victory, in the primary and later in the general election.

On the Democrats’ side, the candidates were open and lively. Corn and ethanol were big topics, and nobody spoke a harsh word about either. At one joint appearance, Volesky began his comments by reaching in his jacket pocket and, like a magician with a rabbit, pulling out an ear of corn.

At a gathering with truckers, several candidates talked up a thing called bio-diesel, a fuel made from corn or other plants. Hutmacher, when his turn came, looked at the truckers and said something like, “Well, you all know the issue with biodiesel is gumming up in the cold.’’ Several truckers nodded. Several candidates seemed to be thinking, “Man, I wish I’d said that.’’

I think such public moments show voters something about the people who want to be their governor. Those moments sometimes happen during joint appearances. They sometimes happen, as well, when news reporters have frequent access to the candidates as they travel the state.

I remember a trip with Abbott in 2002. He stopped for gas in a small town and spotted a rack of candy bars by the cash register. “Two for $1,’’ the sign said. “How much if I just want one?’’ Abbott asked. “Well, 50 cents,’’ the cashier said. “OK, I’ll take two and get the bargain,’’ Abbott answered.

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I thought it was a campaign moment. I couldn’t tell if the cashier did.

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