Face time trumps debates

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This column was supposed to be about attending the first full-cast presidential debate in Sioux City, which would also have been my first presidential debate.

But, after learning non-Fox News media is sequestered in a "filing room" to watch the debate on a screen, I decided I could watch the debate on TV from home much easier.

The prospect of seeing the candidates up close and personal was enticing, especially considering I have yet to meet all of them in a local setting. Hanging out in the "spin room" also sounded like quite the opportunity; however, the candidates themselves will not be there to respond to the debate.

Needless to say, I was not any happier to hear this than Donald Trump was to hear only two candidates agreed to attend a debate moderated by him, considering the date had been circled on the calendar since it was announced.

But, as publisher Paula Buenger reminded, it's the face time that really matters. For her, that face time included a half-hour car ride with Elizabeth Dole and a chat with Joe Biden sitting on small chairs in an empty kindergarten classroom.

My face time thus far includes talking with Rick Santorum between his bites of his Pizza Ranch pizza and asking Herman Cain questions while he waited for his lunch at La Chiesa. Though Cain has since dropped out of the race, it was that meeting that resulted in one of my photographs being published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer Investment News. That's something I wouldn't have gotten at a debate.

Yes, debates give voters an opportunity to see how candidates stack up against each other and respond to criticism. But, do they really give voters an opportunity to get to know candidates beyond the rehearsed answers and pointed attacks of their opponents?

In short, no they do not.

Part of the reason Iowa is first in the nation is because Iowans have a reputation for doing their homework, showing up and asking good questions. Based on the answers, they not only get an idea of what the candidate wants to do, but also their character.

While Iowa's first-in-the-nation status is under fire, including from a University of Iowa professor, what should be under fire is the number of debates.

There has simply been too many of them and even northwest Iowa, normally a sort of Mecca for GOP candidates, has taken a hit in candidate appearances. Even President Obama campaigned in Spencer twice.

Candidates should be encouraged to sit down -- whether in a kindergarten classroom or an upscale restaurant -- and engage with voters.

While debates may bring ratings and dollars for national and international media outlets, the face time with voters and media outlets of all sizes should carry more weight.

I'll take the latter before the former any day of the week.

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