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Christian, Devolites Spar Over Debates

<bt>This fall's campaign season is only about two weeks old but already a spat has broken out between the candidates for the 34th District Senate seat. The disagreement concerns candidate debates. One candidate wants more of them, the other doesn't.

In early August, Ron Christian, the Democrat running for the seat, sent a letter to his Republican opponent, Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (35th) suggesting they organize a series of five, one-on-one debates all over the district "moderated by a nonpartisan group."

"Given the important issues facing us in this election, it is vital we give voters an adequate opportunity to hear from the candidates in the same setting," Christian wrote.

"I was hoping we could do a few one-on-ones," said Christian, an ordained minister who is running his first political campaign. "We'd have to agree on a format for those and I thought we could do that between staffs."

AFTER DEVOLITES received the letter, she called Christian's campaign office saying that five debates would be unnecessary because civic groups around the district would be hosting their own forums at which people would get the chance to hear from both candidates.

"I thought it would fulfill his request for five debates," Devolites said.

When not meeting civic groups, Devolites said she will be spending her time knocking on doors.

So far, the only forum that has been scheduled is the Camelot Civic Association's candidate forum Sept. 16, at 7:30 p.m., at Camelot Elementary School in Annandale. But several other groups have said they are planning to host their own debates.

Steve DelBianco of the Mantua Citizens Association said he would invite candidates to his neighborhood on Oct. 22. Maureen Plombon of the Miller Heights Neighborhood Association in Oakton said her organization has a tradition of inviting candidates to address the group.

"Typically they've been very open and accepting," she said, adding that she was also thinking of a tentative date of Oct. 22.

"She said she would meet at the five or six that are scheduled and that would be enough," said Christian.

After Devolites refused to organize any additional debates, the Christian campaign sent out a press release entitled "Delegate Devolites Ducks Debates."

Devolites called Christian's reaction "incredibly disingenuous."

"I just think it's a shame they're behaving that way this early in the campaign," she said.

THE 34TH DISTRICT Senate seat emerged as an open seat after the 2001 round of redistricting which redrew the district's lines in such a way that the seat's incumbent, state Sen. Leslie Byrne (D), no longer lives in the district. Like Christian, Devolites has to introduce herself to voters in Annandale, Fairfax and Dranesville District who have never seen either of the two candidates' names on the ballot before. But Devolites benefits from name recognition in Vienna because of her five years as a delegate and, as a result, can be considered as somewhat of an incumbent.

Scott Keeter, a George Mason University public policy professor who is on sabbatical this year at the Pew Research Center, said campaigns weigh their "own strategic considerations" in determining whether or not to agree to a debate.

"A candidate who has a sense that he or she is well ahead in the race and the opponent is not very well known may be reluctant to consent to a debate because that would give free publicity to the opponent," he said.

Nevertheless, he added, debates are "extremely valuable."

"Debates have a particular value in that they are first of all a source of information that is not entirely prepackaged or biased from the point of view of who put it together as campaign advertising obviously is," he said. "And also people like the battle. They like the idea of people having to defend their ideas and test them for all to see."

When redistricting reduces the number of competitive districts, voters are likely to see fewer debates, he said.

"I think it tremendously depresses turnout because you don't have races in many of these places."

Christian, for his part, said that his offer is still valid.

"I'm not trying to start a war," he said.