Hungry for debate, two California congressional hopefuls stop eating

Is a hunger strike the way to push an incumbent to agree to more debates?

By , Staff writer

CNN anchor Kyra Phillips could barely maintain a straight face.

“A hunger strike? C’mon, is that really the way to go, sir?”

That’s the question she gave to Democratic congressional candidate Richard Lutz Thursday. Mr. Lutz stopped eating on Aug. 12 to bring attention to his California 52nd District opponent, incumbent Duncan D. Hunter, who won’t debate him until late October. Lutz says that is too late because 60 percent of people vote absentee, and those ballots go out in early October.

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“It’s a very sad commentary when in a democracy you have to go on a hunger strike to get a debate with your opponent,” he told CNN. “If the media comes in here and says, 'Well this is just a publicity stunt,' that’s pretty absurd.”

But if this is a publicity stunt, it’s working, Hunter campaign spokesman Dave Gilliard says. “You’ve got to give [Lutz] credit for being able to draw attention to himself,” said Mr. Gilliard, noting the CNN appearance and this reporter's phone query. “But this is proving him to be a crackpot. He wants us to dance to his tune, but we’re not going to do that. We’re going to run a dignified campaign in a way the voters appreciate.”

Lutz is joined in his hunger strike by Libertarian candidate Michael Benoit, as the two candidates try to pressure Hunter to agree to a series of at least five debates. The duo has issued a statement enumerating what they see as an incumbent's advantages: spending taxpayer money on brochures to promote themselves, promoting "phoney job fairs” to get free media coverage, and gerrymandering districts to their own advantage. Lutz and Benoit planned to break their hunger strike and publicly challenge Duncan to a debate at an event Friday evening.

The San Diego congressional district is heavily Republican. Hunter – a freshman congressman who replaced his father (of the same name) when he retired – is projected to win handily in November.

Lutz told CNN he has lost 14 pounds by skipping meals (19 in all) and is so tired he has resorted to napping during the day. Benoit and Lutz say their proposed debates will show voters that the younger Hunter is not as qualified as his father, and have called several websites to request removing the elder Hunter’s photos displayed next to current information about the district.

Political experts see both sides of the issue. The idea of forcing a debate is a good one, they say, but they wonder about the hunger strike tactic backfiring.

“Trying to force a debate is always a good idea for a challenger,” says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. “But the hunger strike idea carries it to an extreme, which may lead voters to question the judgment of the hunger strikers. Is it worth compromising your health for a candidate debate? That may seem more desperate that the circumstances warrant.”

But Villanova political scientist Lara Brown says the desperation may be warranted.

“Although Mr. Benoit’s tactics may be extreme and his demands may be unrealistic," she says, "he may also be seen as a symbol representing the very real frustration that is evident in the polls, especially in the views of Independents – that the two-party system is broken, that incumbents are out of touch with their constituents, and that it is high time to throw out entrenched elitist politicians and bring politics back to the people.”

Others say it’s in the incumbent’s interest to keep debates to a minimum. The conventional wisdom in politics, they say, is that no one has won an election by doing well in a debate, whereas lots of people may have lost their elections by making debate mistakes.

“The last thing an incumbent or frontrunner wants to do is to debate his or her opponent,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “The only thing people remember about debates is the brief sound bite: Gerald Ford saying that 'There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe;' Lloyd Bentsen saying to Dan Quayle, 'You're no Jack Kennedy;' George H.W. Bush looking at his watch, Richard Nixon sweating on TV.”

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