Saturday, Oct 20, 2018
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Debate, Mr. Strickland

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Ohio’s election for U.S. Senate this year will greatly determine which party controls the chamber in the next Congress. Less than six weeks before the state’s primary, there is a meaningful contest for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Rob Portman in November — as much as the leading candidate and his party prefer to deny it.

Ohio voters would benefit from a debate, or several debates, between the major Democratic contenders, former Gov. and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland and Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld. (A third Democratic candidate, Kelli Prather, has been much less visible.)

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Mr. Strickland, who has been running for nearly a year, refuses to debate and appears content to run out the clock until the primary. He might not want to take too much for granted.

The ex-governor has endorsements from the Ohio Democratic Party, prominent state and national Democrats, and unions and other party interest groups. Polls of voters have shown Mr. Strickland comfortably ahead of Mr. Sittenfeld, and a slight favorite over Senator Portman. Yet his decision to wage a largely invisible campaign so far reportedly has caused his fund-raising to fall short of internal targets.

Mr. Sittenfeld refuses to go away, however much Mr. Strickland and the state party wish he would. His energetic and substantive campaign continues to gain traction, credibly challenging Mr. Strickland about his contradictory statements on gun control.

The councilman is picking up endorsements and raising money of his own. His effort to portray himself as the future of Ohio political leadership, and his opponent as the past, isn’t easily dismissed.

News media across Ohio — including The Blade — have offered to sponsor debates between Mr. Strickland and Mr. Sittenfeld. The latter candidate has accepted; the former has brushed them off, calling them a distraction from his challenge to Mr. Portman.

Mr. Strickland last won an election 10 years ago; he lost his re-election bid for governor to Republican John Kasich in 2010. However high his name recognition may still be among Ohioans, that isn’t a sure translation into votes, in March or November.

Debates would enable both Democratic candidates to make their case to voters on a variety of issues, not only gun violence but also economic policy, environmental protection, trade agreements, terrorism, immigration, urban affairs, race relations, women’s health, and campaign finance reform. They would sharpen whichever candidate emerges from the primary for the general-election Senate campaign.

Debating runs the risk for Mr. Strickland of elevating his major opponent’s profile. Ducking debates carries its own threat: It could cause voters to wonder what the seemingly confident front-runner is afraid of. It also makes his party look less than robust.

At some point, Mr. Strickland will have to engage Ohio voters in a way that goes beyond appearing before generally friendly audiences and making incessant online appeals for campaign money. That probably ought to happen sooner rather than later.

Instead, though, Mr. Strickland evidently believes he can ignore his chief primary opponent and gain his party’s nomination on cruise control. He might ask Hillary Clinton whether she wishes she could get a do-over on her initial rope-a-dope campaign strategy against Sen. Bernie Sanders.

And even then, Mrs. Clinton has shown Democratic voters, and her opponents, enough respect to engage in debates. What is Mr. Strickland’s excuse again?

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