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Votes

Debating the Debate

Will there be a debate? Will anyone watch it if there is?

Both candidates for the eighth congressional seat are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, said Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland.

"This sounds like a classic match-up," he said.

Chuck Floyd (R), 54, of Kensington, is running against incumbent Chris Van Hollen (D), 45, also of Kensington.

Floyd, a political newcomer, served in the military and left a job at the U.S. State Department to run for office.

Van Hollen, a former state senator and attorney, is a first-term representative.

Floyd called for a series of monthly debates against incumbent Van Hollen after Floyd won the Republican Party's nomination on March 2.

"He refuses to debate," Floyd said.

Van Hollen's campaign office said that there will be ample opportunities for voters to hear both candidates’ views on the issues, but did not make a commitment on a debate. "[Van Hollen] hasn't decided yet if he's going to debate," said Chuck Westover, spokesperson for Van Hollen's campaign.

IN THE LAST election, a newly drawn district (encompassing all of Potomac) included precincts which would favor a Democrat, but then-incumbent Connie Morella (R) was so well known that a debate had been necessary, Parry-Giles said. "That race was very, very different."

Van Hollen won that race, getting 112,788 votes (51.71 percent to Morella's 103,587 (47.49 percent).

Now, with Van Hollen as the incumbent in a Democratic district, the election falls into a different mold.

At issue at this point is what Parry-Giles refers to as the meta-debate, or the debate about whether there should be a debate.

Debates at the presidential level are necessary, Parry-Giles said. "It's become a sort of ritualized component," he said. Even debates for a governor or U.S. senator can be widely televised and reach a broad swath of voters.

At the congressional level, Parry-Giles said, debates are rarely seen by a wide audience, muting their efficacy.

"Most often, such debates would not be televised," he said. If they are televised, they are usually shown on cable access which has few viewers, he said.

The strategy of calling for debates, said Parry-Giles, is useful for Floyd. "He probably doesn't have a snowball's chance," he said. He was quick to add that he doesn't mean that to take anything away from Floyd. "He seems like a fairly credible guy."

Floyd can't lose by calling for debates, said Parry-Giles. If the incumbent accepts, "it gives him a chance to stand on the stage with him and gets him coverage [in local media]," Parry-Giles said. "If he refuses than the challenger can say [the incumbent] is running away from his record."

The classic incumbent strategy in a election like this one is not to debate, said Parry-Giles. That way they don't give exposure to their opponent, and don't risk making any news they don't want to.

This strategy only works in races like this one, which are not close races, and where the challenger is typically underfunded, and the incumbent expects to win easily. "Nobody lists the district as a toss-up or competitive," Parry-Giles said.

According to the website www.opensecrets.org, Van Hollen has raised $1,277,601 to Floyd's $253,628.