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Jack Zaleski, Published June 09 2012

Zaleski: The duck-and-hide debate strategy

One of the more interesting and bizarre North Dakota primary election campaigns comes to an end with voting Tuesday. It’s been one for the history books – one that will be studied in political science classes, whatever the outcome.

But among the highlights and lowlights were a couple of disappointments, both related to the failure of Republican candidates to debate.

For the first time in state history, a U.S. House seat and a U.S. Senate seat will be vacant. Republicans endorsed Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk for the House, while PSC Commissioner Kevin Cramer told party regulars to take a hike, and went straight to the Republican primary ballot. His stunt was unprecedented, and unappreciated by a lot of rank-and-file Republicans. Impossible to know if that anger is hot enough to burn Cramer and give the prize to party loyalist Kalk.

Still, Cramer and Kalk found a way not to debate. I suspect they did a behind-the-door gentlemen’s agreement. They probably concluded a free-for-all debate could be damaging and embarrassing if the right questions were asked. After all, both men have a few things in their records for which to be embarrassed.

In the Republican Senate race, frequent candidate Duane Sand pulled a Cramer and declined to participate at the party’s endorsing convention. Delegates there overwhelmingly endorsed U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, who after one term in the House wants to be a senator.

Sand said he would have liked to debate Berg. Berg, when asked about a possible debate, pulled out the ol’ script and rattled on about “focusing on issues,” instead of answering whether he would debate.

In the end, neither history-making GOP primary contest featured a debate. What a shame. The losers are the people of North Dakota, in particular Republicans and independents who might not have made up their minds about the candidates.

Seeing how the contenders performed in a statewide, televised (Prairie Public TV, for example) and unrehearsed debate surely would have revealed more about the candidates than the average voter knows now.

A party primary is one thing, but a general election is quite another. Surely the winners of the Tuesday primary won’t be able to get away with a duck-and-hide debate strategy in the run-up to November. Will they?

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.

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