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posted: 1/13/2010 12:01 AM

Candidates skipping debates as primary looms

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With the Illinois primary election just around the corner, some top candidates have decided they can afford to skip a debate or two.

Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk won't take part in a televised debate Thursday in Chicago -- the major debate of the Senate campaign. On the Democratic side, Alexi Giannoulias plans to skip one later this month.

The story is similar in the governor's race.

Andy McKenna skipped a debate this week in Chicago, and fellow Republican Jim Ryan skipped one Tuesday in Countryside. Both men are passing up a televised debate next week in Champaign, organizers say.

"I fear too many campaigns don't see these debates as a public service," John Paul, a producer for WILL television, which sponsored the Champaign event, said in an e-mail. "Instead, debating (or not debating) is a tool in the campaign arsenal. That's unfortunate."

While it's a time-tested strategy for top candidates to ignore the trailing candidates whenever possible, some of those challengers are crying foul.

Hinsdale developer Patrick Hughes said it's time Kirk shows "he is willing to answer the tough questions."

"I sense he is not willing though because he knows they will not like the answers he has," Hughes said in a statement.

Polls show Kirk with a huge lead in the Republican race for President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Thursday's debate is open to all candidates in the race, even those barely registering in the polls.

From a strategy perspective, Kirk would have little to gain from sharing the stage with those candidates. Participating could send voters the message that the others are legitimate contenders and give them a high-profile opportunity to take shots at the front-runner.

Often debate organizers exclude candidates below a certain level in the polls -- sometimes 5 percent. In the last Chicago Tribune poll, Kirk was the only candidate topping 3 percent. But that poll was weeks ago and without more current results, the League of Women Voters of Illinois decided not to exclude anyone based on old results, said executive director Jan Czarnik.

Kirk campaign spokesman Eric Elk said there was an issue with the debate date. He didn't elaborate. Another Republican, Don Lowery of Golconda, also has declined, according to the league.

Of the six Republicans running, Hughes, Andy Martin and John Arrington have so far agreed to participate in the WLS-TV debate sponsored by the league and the Better Government Association, according to the league. Kirk's absence gives them an hour of TV time with no rebuttal from him.

In the Democratic race for Senate, spokeswoman Kati Phillips acknowledged Giannoulias will skip a debate later this month put on by groups at Chicago's DePaul University. He also skipped a debate last year in Rockford.

But he will have participated in five forums before the primary, Phillips said.

"We think the broadcast reach of these really fulfills what we need to do," Phillips said.

One of Giannoulias' Democratic opponents, former city of Chicago inspector general David Hoffman, disagreed.

"I think it's fairly apparent that he's doing the bare minimum in order to not have to defend a very thin resume and a questionable record," said Hoffman spokesman Thom Karmik.

Ryan spokesman Dan Curry said candidates have to balance the different demands on their time, often making scheduling decisions weeks in advance of events.

"If we went to all candidate forums we would have very little time for anything else," Curry said.