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BILL CRAWFORD — Debate strategy puts lid on issues

BILL CRAWFORD

Important issues in the Republican primary for governor are getting short shrift.

The second Republican gubernatorial debate is scheduled for June 7th at Southwest Community College in Summit. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will again be a no-show. He skipped the first one held April 2nd at Mississippi State University too. His absence kept the first debate off television and, apparently, will keep the Summit one off too.

That appears to be a Reeves campaign strategy. His opponents, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller and state Representative Robert Foster, have little money to use paid advertising to increase their name identification and compare themselves to Reeves. So, why should Reeves give them free airtime in televised debates?

Meanwhile, Reeves has buckets of money with which he can dominate paid advertising. The latest campaign finance reports showed Reeves with $6.7 million in the bank, Waller with about $580,000, and Foster with $19,000.

Reeves even ignores his two challengers in his campaign ads. Instead of them he takes on Democratic candidate Attorney General Jim Hood, though that contest cannot occur until November and only if both win the primaries. Hood had $1.2 million in his campaign account.

There will be one exception to Reeves’ rope-a-dope strategy. No doubt to appear shrewd rather than fearful, Reeves has agreed to one televised debate with Waller and Foster on July 23rd, just two weeks before the August 6th primary. WJTV in Jackson announced last week it would live stream the debate on its channels.

The dearth of face to face debates that include the front runner gives short shrift to voters’ need to hear unedited discussion of important issues. It will be interesting to see how they react.

Waller has raised enough money to allow him to buy limited advertising in key markets outside of Jackson where he already has good name identification. Will a limited buy be sufficient to gain voters’ attention? No doubt Reeves will try to drown out any Waller advertising with his own heavy ad blitz.

Foster is having to depend social media and news reports.

Meanwhile, voters appear disposed to hear issues debated. As reported in Mississippi Today, the latest Millsaps/Chism Strategies poll showed 37% of voters think the state is headed in the right direction while 35% think the opposite. And the gap between the two has been tightening in recent weeks.

The right direction is where Reeves contends he and outgoing Gov. Phil Bryant have got the state headed over the past eight years. Waller, Foster, and Hood say hold on a minute and point to challenges Bryant and Reeves have not resolved.

The reality is both sides have strong points to make, which is why issue debates would be helpful to voters.

On the positive side, more people are working in Mississippi than ever, the unemployment rate is at a record low, and our business climate is favorable. On the negative side are issues in or near the crisis stage – funding for highways and bridges, teacher shortages, rural hospitals at risk of closing, and increasing distress in many rural counties.

There are nine weeks until the first primary. Can Reeves keep the lid on ’til then? Or will major issue discussion leak out? Stay tuned, if possible.

(Yes, I know the same is happening in the Democratic primary.)

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicate columnist from Meridian.

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