Stephanie Grace: Cassidy skips debates; public loses out _lowres

Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy speaks to the media about his campaign for Louisiana's U.S. Senate seat after talking at the Louisiana Municipal Association's annual convention on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in Baton Rouge, La. Cassidy is running against three-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

When a major party candidate for a big-time political office avoids debates, it could be a sign of either strength or weakness. In U.S. Rep. and Senate hopeful Bill Cassidy’s case, call it a bit of both.

In agreeing to just two broadcast forums (Oct. 14 and 29) and turning down invitations from several television outlets that normally host debates, Cassidy, the lead GOP challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu this fall, is making a couple of big bets.

He’s assuming that this is such a Republican year that a majority of voters will be willing to cast their ballots for him, whether or not they know all that much about him. And he’s betting that he’s got more to lose from a potential mistake, or perhaps just from a direct comparison with the seasoned 18-year incumbent, than he stands to gain.

Landrieu’s vulnerabilities are well-documented, and they have more to do with her party than her performance. Sure, she’s delivered on state priorities such as disaster loan forgiveness and offshore oil royalties. Yes, she sits on the Appropriations Committee and chairs Energy. But she’s still a Democrat, one whose very presence contributes to the party’s majority, while representing an undeniably Republican state. Her agenda in agreeing to five broadcast debates was to remind voters of the former and de-emphasize the latter, so it makes some strategic sense for Cassidy to deny her the opportunity.

Yet Cassidy’s stated reasons for agreeing to so few face-offs sound awfully defensive.

One excuse is that debating isn’t a good use of campaigning time.

“Bill Cassidy is busy driving throughout Louisiana as he meets and listens to as many citizens as possible across the state,” his spokesman, John Cummins, told the Associated Press. Actually, no matter how much driving you do, Louisiana’s a pretty big place. If you want to reach a critical mass of voters, the way to do it is to go on TV.

Cummins also dismissed debates as “highly scripted TV events.” Nice try, but their appeal is in their unpredictability, the possibility that a candidate might be knocked off script, grapple with a tough question that can’t be dismissed with consultant-approved sound bites, or actually reveal his or her personality.

Behind the scenes, some Democrats are seizing on Cassidy’s refusal as evidence he’s worried about making some dreadful gaffe. Honestly, it’s more likely that the candidate, a cerebral doctor with a history of — gasp — moderation, might get tangled up in complexity or seem like he’s trying too hard to convince conservative voters that he’s suitably hard-core.

Cassidy’s other problem, of course, is a guy named Rob Maness. Because the retired colonel, fellow Republican and tea party adherent shows up in the polls and on the fundraising lists, albeit far behind Cassidy, he gets to debate, too. That means the forums won’t be the one-on-one, Democrat-versus-Republican showdowns Cassidy would prefer. Instead, they’re likely to turn into pile-ons, with Cassidy getting hammered from both the left and the right. (At least one sponsor, WWL-TV, says it intends to go ahead with its debate with or without Cassidy. No word yet on whether the set will include an empty chair.)

The bad news for voters is that, strategy aside, fewer debates means fewer opportunities for the type of revealing moments that televised forums sometimes produce. Moments like Rick Perry’s famously flaky brain freeze when he couldn’t name the federal departments he’d eliminate as president, or Barack Obama’s dismissive “You’re likeable enough, Hillary,” or 2002 challenger Suzanne Haik Terrell’s bridge-too-far attempt to score anti-abortion points against Landrieu by accusing her of leaving her Catholic faith.

It’s moments like these that can cause viewers to re-evaluate what they’ve heard or simply whether they’re comfortable supporting the people they’re watching. They can be game changers, for better or worse.

At this point in the campaign, it seems, Cassidy doesn’t want to risk changing the game, to shift the focus on anything beyond the fact that he’s a Republican. In this environment, that may well be enough.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at Read her blog at Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.