What's got the opponent of Wendy Davis so nervous?
The Texas candidates for governor, Davis and Greg Abbott, had agreed to participate in a debate in Dallas next month, broadcast on the ABC affiliate. It was set to air statewide, reaching 83 percent of all Texans, in markets major and small. Abbott has suddenly backed out.
This is odd, because both had agreed to the format and rules. Indeed, on May 28, Abbott's campaign manager sent a letter to WFAA graciously thanking them for the opportunity. The letter is posted in full on the TV station's website, and it laid out Abbott's terms. It reads in part:
As we have discussed, we have a few simple terms for this debate...first, candidates must be seated at a table for the duration of the debate. Second, the debate must be in a studio setting with no live audience. We also ask that there be no gimmicks like requiring candidates to raise their hands as a 'yes' or 'no' response. Finally, we ask that the debate last no more than one hour.
The TV station and the Davis campaign accepted Abbott's terms. Besides, everyone already knew it would be a roundtable debate because he's in a wheelchair. So we were good to go.
Then why has he backed out now, at the end of August? Vague. "Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format, Attorney General Greg Abbott will regretfully not be participating in the WFAA debate," said a senior campaign adviser. He offered no further explanation.
It's common to have a debate about the debate. It's not common to back out once that is finalized.
The two are still set to debate down in McAllen Sept. 19 in a televised event hosted by -- wait for it -- The McAllen Monitor!!!, KGBT-TV Action 4 News!!! and KLTM Telemundo 40!!! That debate, of course, is not planned for statewide broadcast. Its questioners and moderator will decidedly not be big time, big city media types from WFAA and the Dallas Morning News, the state's leading daily newspaper.
This is reminiscent of George W. Bush's gubernatorial re-election in '98. He was privately already running for the 2000 presidency. To be safe, W's campaign agreed to just one debate, and insisted it be at a UHF TV station way out in El Paso. It got zero statewide coverage. The lighting and sound in the studio were so pathetic that it looked like local access TV circa 1979... in your high school! The low production values basically insured that clips from it were hardly used on the major TV newscasts around the state. This was precisely the goal.
W's reelection was considered a shoe-in, but his guru Karl Rove had a more compelling objective with that debate: minimize any risk from an unexpected flub in a high profile setting. Ergo, El Paso!
Obviously, Abbott's team purposely held off on revealing this bombshell of chickening out until the Friday before the long Labor Day weekend, when the public's interest in news is nil.
"Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format..." is a lot of nothing. In May, they agreed. They got their "simple terms." By late August, they've decided that wasn't a wise calculation and they back out. What has changed?
Polling doesn't suggest that the race is neck and neck. It has tightened some, but Abbott still leads by 10 points and has a huge cash advantage for paid media down the stretch. Something has spooked his campaign.
Is it simply that they've decided there is more upside for Davis in a polished, big city debate that reaches 83 percent of all Texans? They knew that four months ago. The Abbott campaign manager even wrote in his May letter, "Thank you for your invitation to participate in a debate... with live broadcasts to all Gannett stations statewide, as well as an online stream."
There has been no hoodwinking here, no 11th hour surprise.
Maybe Wendy Davis was planning to wear a bikini, in a bid for the southern white male vote. I kid, but something has clearly spooked her opponent.