You and I can complain all we want about the apocalyptic nature of Georgia’s race for governor — at least the part seen through 30-second TV ads.
According to Democrat Roy Barnes, life without him as governor would be best symbolized by a honking, driverless SUV in an empty parking lot. And Republican Nathan Deal says that, minus him, the state Capitol would be a cratered, nuclear wasteland.
Even so, the contest among Barnes, Deal and Libertarian John Monds has been admirable, even historic, by one important measure. Since August, the three candidates for governor have already debated nine times.
Three more meetings, all televised, dominate the final weekend before the vote: 12:30 p.m. Saturday on Channel 2 Action News, 5 p.m. on Fox 5, and 7 p.m. Sunday on Georgia Public Broadcasting. The GPB debate will be aired statewide.
One of these three candidates will have more impact on your life than anyone else you cast a vote for. The next governor will determine the conditions of the roads you drive, the quality of the classrooms your kids sit in, and the availability of the water you drink.
If they’re still strangers by the time you vote Tuesday, it’s your own fault.
Veterans of state politics can’t remember a set of candidates for governor so willing to share the stage — at fairgrounds, in community centers, in one synagogue and several chilled TV studios across the state. We may never again see the like of it.
The debates haven’t been kissing contests. Harsh words have been thrown. At one, Deal’s hasty exit — ahead of a troop of reporters who wanted to question him about his congressional office’s involvement in a business dealing — dominated a news cycle.
Yet the sheer number of forums is proof that the staffs of the Barnes and Deal campaigns — at least on one level — get along surprisingly well.
In mid-August, the two sides sat down with a spreadsheet of 50 or more invitations, and narrowed down their joint appearances to a dozen — about three times the usual number.
The Barnes campaign vetoed appearances before tea party crowds. Both candidates felt obliged to appear at The Temple and its largely Jewish audience in Atlanta. Appearances in Perry and Albany were mandatory, both agreed. Invitations from several universities were consolidated into a single debate hosted by college students on GPB. Televised settings were given precedence.
“We agreed to all these debates because we wanted geographic distribution of the debate settings — and we accomplished that,” said Brian Robinson, spokesman for the Deal campaign.
Thanks to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, political debates have a special place in American history. They are beloved by everyone — except political campaigners, who believe them to be inefficient, exhausting and dangerous.
Even with televised debates, audiences are relatively small. The Channel 2 and Fox 5 confrontations on Saturday will compete with college football, including the Georgia-Florida game. The GPB debate on Sunday will go up against an army of Halloween trick-or-treaters.
So from a campaigner’s point of view, there is little to gain in a debate, and much to risk.
A Barnes gaffe from a last debate in 2002 — trying to play down the deaths of foster children in state custody, the sitting governor declared that “children die every day” — was revived by the Republican Governors Association for use during the current campaign.
That said, Barnes is an attorney who excels at closing arguments before juries, and he’s been in his element during most of the debates this fall. Yet Deal — also an attorney — has been no one’s plaything.
“I think Perry was a good one,” said Chris Carpenter, the Barnes campaign manager. The debate at the Georgia National Fairgrounds was a raucous affair. Booing and jeering from the audience are traditional ingredients.
The former governor showed up in jeans and a sports jacket, and outlined the final theme of his campaign: “The question is, who is best qualified, in this difficult time, to lead the big business of the state of Georgia through these difficult times — and without scandal.”
Deal’s best performance may have been this week, in the odd setting picked by 11 Alive — three chairs in the cavernous state Capitol. The debate, aired at noon Wednesday, was a comparatively calm discussion.
“Nathan’s a nice guy. He doesn’t relish the punch-a-thon. When he has to fight he can — it’s not his first resort,” said Robinson, spokesman for the Deal campaign.
Monds, the Libertarian, has played the third wheel throughout. He occasionally makes news — in the 11 Alive debate, he said he would support the legalization of marijuana.
But Monds has been treated politely — the several thousand votes he’s likely to draw could determine whether the race for governor ends Tuesday, or continues for another four weeks.
With another round of debates.