Ever since 1986, the July candidates’ debate sponsored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association has marked the traditional start of the state’s gubernatorial campaigns. But not this year: Republican Chris Dudley has opted out.
Dudley’s campaign people told the ONPA he won’t take part in Friday’s event because it conflicts with family vacation plans. “Chris made a commitment to his family and he's going to uphold that commitment,” campaign spokesman Leroy Coleman told Portland's KPTV.
Awwwww-inspiring though it is, that excuse – especially coming at the last minute – is obviously phony. If you’re serious about running for governor you don’t pass up an important debate to go on vacation.
Unless, of course, you don’t want to debate in the first place – which could be the smart strategy for Dudley. The polls show him tied with or slightly ahead of his Democratic rival, former two-term Gov. John Kitzhaber, so why risk getting into the ring with the far more experienced and savvy campaigner and getting his nose bloodied?
“If Chris Dudley's campaign said, ‘We need to do this. It's important to us,’ he would be there,” said KPTV political analyst Tim Hibbitts. “Their judgment is that it isn't that important and they can afford to blow it off politically. And, I would say candidly, I think they're correct.”
Dudley has run a remarkably substance-free campaign so far. All his TV ads have told us about him is that (1) he was diagnosed with diabetes at 16, (2) he went to Yale and became an NBA player, (3) he started a foundation to help kids with diabetes and (4) he wants to be governor. He’s casting himself in the role of the outsider opposite Kitzhaber’s consummate insider, and so far it’s paying off for him.
The question is whether Dudley can get away with being this vague all the way to Election Day. Kitzhaber didn’t hesitate to zing him for dodging the debate: “I think [voters] deserve the opportunity to compare and contrast the kinds of experience we bring into it and the kinds of approaches we're going to take to deal with some very, very difficult economic issues. To be able to describe how we're going to resolve these issues, you can't do that in a 60-second television ad, I'm sorry to say. It requires a bit more of a dialogue.”
The Dudley campaign “can get away with it now, but at some point in September and October, they are going to need to do debates,” Hibbitts said.
They might also have to make it more clear just who Dudley is, where he stands on issues and what he would do as governor. Oregonians might not be willing to elect an empty suit – even if it’s a very, very large suit.
UPDATE: It turns out that Dudley's claim that he had to pass on the debate because of a planned family vacation doesn't quite hold water. On Friday, when the debate was to have taken place, he was in Aspen, CO attending a conference for Republican governors and gubernatorial candidates.
Why didn't Dudley just say he was going to a political convention instead of giving the vacation excuse? I guess he or his handlers thought the "he made a commitment to his family" story would make him seem like a nice, regular guy rather than a calculating politician.