Opinion

Peters-James won’t debate as polls show tightening race

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In 1961, Dr. Seuss snuck into the book “The Sneetches and Other Stories” a tale about “The Zax,” a pair of hairy creatures who crossed paths in the desert. One was traveling north and the other south and both refused to move out of the way of the other.

“I’ll stay here, not budging! I can and I will if it makes you and me and the whole world stand still,” said the South-Going Zax.

And so it is with the U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan. In the past month, public polling has everything from U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Twp., up 10 points to Republican John James up 1 point.

The race, the first $100 million campaign in Michigan history, is drawing national attention because it represents the Republicans’ best pick-up opportunity.

And, yet, this will be the first campaign in at least 26 years where there won’t be a single debate — barring something remarkable happening before the election — between the two of them. Not one single time will these two men be together in some public format for voters to decide between them.

No exchanging of ideas. No responses to the negative ads. No back-and-forth. No nothing. Just more TV ads.

WGVU, the Grand Rapids public TV station that has hosted U.S. Senate debates every cycle with the exception of 2014, received a “yes” from Peters for an Oct. 12 debate. They’re still waiting for a call back from the James campaign.

The James campaigns said yes to debates on the state’s largest commercial stations — WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids and WXYZ and WDIV in metro Detroit. Two of these stations hosted debates for governor last cycle, and “If they were good enough for Gretchen Whitmer in 2018, they should be good enough for Gary Peters,” James’ people said.

The Peters campaign wanted the traditional public TV appearances on WGVU and WTVS in Detroit.

The two did separate interviews on WDIV’s “Flashpoint” over the weekend. Both blamed the other for not having a debate.

Neither side wants to acquiesce to the other and none of the TV stations are aggressively trying to play the middle and work out a compromise.

The problem is that a debate is a high-risk proposition for both campaigns with the potential of a negative outcome outweighing the potential of any positive outcome.

For James, he could appear on public TV on a Sunday afternoon, as happened in 2018. But few would watch it with football on the other channels. It would also open up the Republican to policy questions that will expose his lack of depth on issues compared to Peters, the professor-like technocrat who gladly dives into the weeds on any topic.

For the less Peters, appearing on commercial TV during prime time will put him side-by-side to the young, buff, attractive James under the great lighting of a station like WDIV or WOOD.

You may not have seen the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debate of 1960, but historians point to these meetings when discussing the power of appearances on TV.

If Trump can narrow his likely loss to Biden to 5 percentage points — polls show Biden up by 9 points in Michigan now — the James campaign believes it still has a chance. They believe they don’t feel like they have to bend like they did in 2018 when James gritted through a lightly watched, ho-hum WGVU debate with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Delta Twp.

Meanwhile, Peters should win this race and his team knows this. They’re not going out of their way to give the Republican any more exposure than necessary unless it’s under their conditions.

So here we are. The clock is ticking. People are voting.

Kind of like the story of the Zax where, “In a couple of years, the new highway came through, And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax, And left them there, standing unbudged in their tracks.”

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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