Voters hoping to size up the candidates in one of the nation’s marquee Senate races with a series of high-profile debates may be disappointed. Though Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, and Democrat Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday agreed to their first two primetime television debates, they are at loggerheads over the rest of the schedule, a sign of increasing acrimony in a race that could help determine control of the Senate.
Brown has said he wants three or four debates, but two of those would be low-profile radio appearances he has accepted. Added to those will be the two primetime television debates - one on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) with Jon Keller, and another sponsored by a consortium of Springfield media outlets.
Warren, too, has accepted the WBZ and Springfield television face-offs, but has also said she will participate in two more as-yet-undetermined televised debates. She has not agreed to the two radio debates.
Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager, was noncommittal Tuesday when asked whether the senator would agree to additional televised debates with his Democratic challenger.
“We’ll see how it goes,’’ Barnett said. “Everything else is still under consideration.’’
In prior major elections in Massachusetts, the candidates have negotiated with each other and eventually agreed to numerous televised matchups. But in this case, the Brown team has said it has no desire to have “a debate about debates.’’
An attempt by Warren’s campaign to negotiate directly with Brown’s campaign Tuesday was rejected by Barnett.
“That’s the sort of sideshow nonsense that voters have no interest in,’’ he said. “We are accepting invitations from the sponsors as we get them.’’
As far as the radio debates go, Barnett said, the senator “will be there in-studio, with or without her.’’
Warren’s campaign decried Brown’s refusal to negotiate on Tuesday.
“It’s pretty clear that Scott Brown’s claim of setting a new tone in politics is just hollow rhetoric since he is refusing to follow a longstanding tradition in Massachusetts of Democrats and Republicans sitting down and agreeing to a series of debates,’’ said campaign manager Mindy Myers. “Clearly he is no Bill Weld Republican,’’ she added, referring to the former governor.
Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who owns a home in Hingham, said both sides are seeking public relations advantage.
“They’re playing strategy games,’’ he said. “The feeling would be probably, OK, because Brown was the first to say, ‘I would do this,’ then the Warren campaign says, ‘Let’s call for more to make him look like he’s afraid of debates.’ ’’
The Senate race between Governor William F. Weld and Senator John F. Kerry in 1996 set the standard for debates, with more than half a dozen primetime forums televised on multiple stations across the state.
All but one of those debates were organized by a large media consortium that included The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and all the major television outlets in Boston. The remaining debate was organized by Western Massachusetts media.
Though various elements of the consortium have come together in recent elections, it is no longer as unified.
Rob Gray, a political consultant who worked for Weld’s Senate campaign, said Kerry had wanted fewer debates in that election, but felt pressured by the media. Meetings over the format, the length, and even the size and shape of the podiums included as many as 20 people from the campaigns and media organizations, he said.
In the end, most political observers said the aggressive schedule, despite Kerry’s initial reluctance, helped him to victory and prepared him for his presidential campaign eight years later.
Gray said without the power of a consortium, it is easier for candidates to choose debates on an ad hoc basis, selecting the forums that fit their strategy.
“Debate invitations these days are like the Wild West. You don’t know when they’re going to come in, who they’re going to come from, and which candidates they’re going to include,’’ Gray said. “A lot of the negotiation potential has gone out of the mix.’’
Fourteen years after the Weld-Kerry race, Gray was also the senior adviser to Republican Charles D. Baker, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Deval Patrick. Those two candidates, along with independent Timothy P. Cahill, accepted numerous debates, including three primetime television matchups with high-profile moderators Keller, John King of CNN, and Charles Gibson, formerly of ABC. In addition, they participated in a local television debate in Springfield, at least one radio debate, and at least three forums dedicated to specific issues such as the environment and senior citizens.
In the Brown-Warren race, it’s unclear which candidate would fare better in debates. Warren was a high school debate champion and a popular media commentator before running for Senate. But she is a first-time candidate and has lost her footing at times in recent media appearances, as she’s been dogged by questions over whether she used an undocumented assertion of Native American heritage to advance her academic career.
Brown tends to avoid unscripted media encounters lasting more than a few minutes, but he proved a deft debater when facing off against Attorney General Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election.
Keller said his WBZ-TV debate would take place after Labor Day and would probably last an hour during primetime. Though he bested his competitors by securing the first matchup, he said he was hoping the sides would agree to more.
“For my money, as a voter, the more debates the better,’’ Keller said. “They’re the best way for voters to hear how the candidates think, where they stand, how they react to pressure. So if it were up to me, I could watch debates all day long.’’
Edwards disagrees. He said a few solid debates are enough, whether on radio or television, as long as they’re at a time when most voters can tune in if they wish.
“What you want is a serious conversation about the issues,’’ he said. “And most debates are kind of spectacles and they’re kind of more for the glory of the media.’’