BY BOBBY HARRISON

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Less than two months before the Nov. 6 general election, there has been little talk, at least publicly, about candidate debates in the eight statewide races.

At this stage of the process in previous elections, candidates - particularly underdogs - were holding news conferences to challenge their opponent to a series of debates.

In 1995, then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, a favorite for re-election, shocked everyone by holding a news conference to challenge his opponent, then-Secretary of State Dick Molpus, to an unprecedented debate at the Neshoba County Fair.

Molpus accepted, and the event turned into one of the most entertaining chapters in Mississippi political history.

Right now, there are no debates scheduled between Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and Democratic challenger John Arthur Eaves Jr. Neither are any planned for the open post of lieutenant governor where Republican Auditor Phil Bryant and Democratic state Rep. Jamie Franks are running.

"I will meet him anytime, anywhere," said Franks when asked about a possible debate with Bryant. "...We're talking about debates, but right now he will not agree to debate me."

Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said, "Debates are a good way for people to learn more about the candidates. We've had several debates during the campaign so far and hopefully there will be others assuming they work for both candidates' schedules."

There were debates between the lieutenant governor candidates before the Republican primary, but none since the party primaries have been completed and the race has been whittled down to a contest between Franks and Bryant.

'Warts and all'

"Debates give you an opportunity to see the candidates, warts and all," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State. "You know you get their very best side with the exact message they want you to have in television commercials and other venues. In debates you learn what they are like when the heat is on."

Now that the traditional political speakings are few and far between, Wiseman said debates are one of the last opportunities to see the candidates in a more realistic environment.

But there is a debate about whether that environment will be available this year. In 2003, for instance, Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Republican challenger Barbour held four debates across the state. Most of those were carried by some statewide media outlet, such as public television.

Wiseman's Stennis Institute hosted one of those debates at Mississippi State. Wiseman is in the process of sending letters to the major statewide candidates inviting them to participate in debates this year.

With the election quickly approaching, Wiseman and the public should know soon whether there will be debates this year.

"We're working with some groups" on sponsoring debates, said Sharon Garrison, a spokeswoman for Eaves. "I think October will be a busy month for debates."

Ryan Annison said Barbour, a heavy favorite in the race, "will be glad" to participate in debates.

The question at this point is, where and when.

In past years, Mississippi public television has hosted debates. There are no plans for public television to host debates this year, but Marie Antoon, executive director of the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television, said the candidates probably would be invited to participate in one-on-one interviews that will be aired later.

Philip Pearce, program director for the Mississippi State/Capitol press corps speakers' series, said he is in the process of trying to invite the statewide candidates to participate in forums.

Pearce said thus far a program featuring Republican Mike Chaney and Democrat Gary Anderson for insurance commissioner has been confirmed for Sept. 17 and efforts are being made to schedule other candidates.

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