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Crawford: There's no debating the fact that debates matter
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President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney go head-to-head tonight in the first of three presidential debates, with the initial one at the University of Denver.

History tells us it’s unlikely the debate will dramatically change the course of the presidential race, one way or the other.

Though debates may not swing many votes, it’s still important for voters to see how the candidates make their case for why they should be president and defend their position from the other side’s criticisms.

Whether you’re planning to vote for Romney or Obama, you should have the opportunity to see them in that debate setting.

Here at the state level, unfortunately, more and more candidates are ducking out of debates and arbitrarily depriving the people they would represent of this opportunity to see them in action.

Some of the most widely viewed debates here are those sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and broadcast statewide over the Georgia Public Broadcasting network (Full disclosure: I have occasionally been a media panelist on some of these debates, which admittedly makes me a little biased on the subject).

In the weeks before the July 31 primary elections, the Atlanta Press Club scheduled debates involving candidates in several of the state’s congressional races. Georgia’s incumbent congressmen were asked to stand up and explain to the voters why they, and not the challengers running against them, were more deserving of another term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Four incumbent congressmen declined invitations to these debates: Republicans Paul Broun of Athens and Lynn Westmoreland of Sharpsburg, along with Democrats John Lewis of Atlanta and Hank Johnson of DeKalb County.

Broun, Westmoreland, Lewis and Johnson were all overwhelming favorites in their primary elections, which they went on to win. Skipping a debate with an obscure, underfinanced opponent was obviously not going to affect the outcome of any of those races.

That said, the incumbents still owed it to the voters to show up for their debates. Their refusal to debate shows an arrogance and contempt for the constituents who live in their congressional districts.

It was especially distressing to see someone like Lewis behaving like this. Lewis will step in front of a TV camera at every opportunity to complain that voter identification laws are stopping people from exercising their right to vote, but he wouldn’t go before the cameras and put his record up against his opponent’s in a debate. That’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Two incumbents who were in no real danger of losing their primaries had the decency to debate their primary opponents: Republican Reps. Rob Woodall of Gwinnett County and Phil Gingrey of Marietta.

Woodall and Gingrey displayed more courtesy and consideration for their constituents than their congressional cohorts did. I commend them both.

The most interesting congressional race left on the ballot is the 12th U.S. House District race down in Southeast Georgia between Democratic incumbent John Barrow of Augusta and Republican challenger Lee Anderson, a legislator from Grovetown. There won’t be any debates in this race, either.

Barrow has accepted invitations to appear in the Atlanta Press Club debate on GPB as well as two smaller debates within the 12th District. Anderson has declined all debate invitations and is not expected to change that stance in the remaining weeks of the campaign.

It’s no secret that Anderson, a Columbia County farmer, is a little rough around the edges when it comes to public speaking. His campaign people have obviously decided it’s better for him not to appear in a debate where he might give a stumbling answer or make a mistake in a verbal exchange with an experienced politician like Barrow.

Barrow isn’t really in much of a position to complain about Anderson’s nonparticipation; he has a record of skipping debates himself, both this year and in past elections.

The real losers in all of this are the voters — they deserve the chance to see the candidates in action and are being deprived of that opportunity.

If you think you’re the best candidate for a political office, and you’re convinced you have a better plan for the future than your opponent, then stand up and make your case before the people.
That’s a point that shouldn’t even be debatable.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at His column appears Wednesdays and at