Don’t let debates be only guide in race

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 7, 2002

If you plan to pick a governor based on a couple of televised debates, plan something else. Determining whether Bob Riley or Don Siegelman is the best person for the job will not happen in two-minute sound bites.

Make no mistake: Debates are an important part of the Democratic process. Candidates must stand up before tough reporter questions and give straight answers. If candidates don’t give straight answers, the reporters and the public is not fooled.

That doesn’t mean voters can sit in front of a TV set and determine who the best governor will be.

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These days, politicians have an abundance of money and staff. For weeks upon weeks, they have staff members perform practice debates where the toughest of the tough questions are asked.

During those practice debates, politicians film their performance, bring in high-dollar analysts do critique them, and then they start over the next day with another practice.

By the time an actual debate arrives, candidates have perfected their answers to any question that might be asked. They know when to skirt around an issue, and they know when to look into a camera and point at the TV audience. Little about a televised debate is actually spontaneous.

Compare that to the job of a governor. Every day, a new problem or opportunity faces Alabama’s governor. When proration strikes our schools, is there really time to prepare? When the economy turns sour, is there anything a governor can do to resolve the issue overnight? When legislators don’t pass bills, what can a governor really do?

Unlike a debate, politicians can’t perfect their answers after a few practice sessions with the staff for real-life problems.

In other words, debates allow us the opportunity to hear candidates talk about what they want to talk about. On the other hand, looking at a candidate’s past — his ethics, his ability to succeed — allows voters a better glimpse into the job a governor might really do.

There is one more debate scheduled before the Nov. 5 general election, and it is important that we watch our gubernatorial candidates as they speak to Alabamians. But between now and then, it also is important for us to take personal looks at Riley and Siegelman and pick the right person to lead Alabama.