In the latest chess move of the highly competitive fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has decided to unilaterally refuse to participate in additional fall debates and forums with his rivals.
In a posting on the campaign's website, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe said that the eight additional debates to which his candidate has already agreed are sufficient, and that Obama wants to spend time talking to voters, rather than preparing for and participating in debates. "Unfortunately, we simply cannot run the kind of campaign we want and need to, engaging with voters in the early states and February 5, if our schedule is dictated by dozens of forums and debates," Plouffe said in his statement.
Like all the leading campaigns, Obama's team has felt some frustration at having their schedules tied up by the debates and forums already held. They have had to share the stage in those events with six or seven other candidates, allowing the candidates only a limited period to make an impression. The campaign of Obama's chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, has also been frustrated by the time-consuming, low-impact debates, but declined to comment publicly on the announcement. Democratic sources say that there have been long-running informal talks about the course of the debates between the Clinton and Obama camps, sometimes also including representatives of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the other leading contender for the nomination. But these sources say that no unified position on the invitations emerged, and Obama's campaign decided to move unilaterally.
Obama's debate performances have been unsteady at times, adding to the impression in some quarters that his greatest political vulnerability his relative lack of conventional experience was revealing him as not up to the job. Obama strategists insist that such reviews have nothing to do with their decision. It is, they say, simply the sheer number of invitations from interest groups and news organizations that make it impossible to accept any more offers and still keep effective control of the candidate's time.
It is unclear if Obama's decision means that all of the pending events will simply be canceled particularly if Clinton follows suit and declines to appear or if they will be staged, at least in some cases, with less than a full cast of candidates.
Plouffe said that Obama has already attended seven Democratic debates, along with 19 candidate forums. Of the remaining 2007 debates in which Obama will participate, five are so-called sanctioned events, endorsed by the Democratic National Committee on behalf of the candidates, in an attempt to limit the total number. Obama also plans to appear at a debate on Sept. 9 in Florida sponsored by Univision, plus two December debates in Iowa. Plouffe said that the campaign is open to additional debates in late December, right before the earliest caucus and primary voting begins.
The situation for the Republican candidates is much different. They have fewer interest groups who demand that their candidates attend their debates, compared to the environmental, seniors, and African-American groups that Democrats risk alienating by turning them down. The Republican National Committee is not playing the sanctioning role that the DNC has taken on. And there are fewer mutually agreed-to debates for the remainder of the 2007 calendar. In addition, candidate-to-be Fred Thompson has not agreed to participate in any debates yet, although sources say he has begun debate preparation sessions in anticipation of entering the race next month.