Even though Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, continues to dodge challenges for televised debates, his Republican opponent, Dan Liljenquist, says he will debate Hatch next week — even if it is just a cardboard cutout of him, or an empty chair.
"We are going to have our own debates. And if Senator Hatch won’t show up, we’ll replay some of the answers he has given previously and we will debate his record for him, " Liljenquist said Tuesday. He also launched a $125,000 television ad campaign attacking Hatch for avoiding debates.
Liljenquist said he is planning three or four such "debates" next week because he knows Hatch will be in Utah for campaign events during the Senate’s Memorial Day recess. Hatch has said that a busy Senate schedule is one reason he will not agree to more than one debate — and only on the radio — before the June 26 primary.
Dave Hansen, Hatch’s campaign manager, dismissed Liljenquist’s move as a gimmick. He said he doubts Hatch will participate in the "debates" because he already has "a very full schedule" of campaign events next week "and there are many ways of meeting with voters besides debates."
Hansen derided the plan for a cutout or an empty chair representing Hatch, along with audio recordings of past statements he has made.
"As far as the recordings and the cardboard cutouts, these are gimmicks that have been tried before. And that’s all they are, gimmicks. If he wants to run a gimmick campaign, then fine, let him."
But Holly Richardson, Liljenquist’s campaign manager, said Hatch in 1976 held "debates" with an absent primary opponent after he declined Hatch challenges. Also in 1986, former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, debated a cardboard cutout of his Republican challenger, M. Tom Shimizu, to draw attention to how he had pulled out of debates after shaky early performances.
Liljenquist said voters are the real losers in Hatch’s no-debate approach.
"Their strategy is just to keep out of sight. And that should concern every single voter in this state," Liljenquist said.
He figures party caucuses had probably elected enough Hatch delegates for him to have won the GOP nomination outright at the state convention, but enough changed their minds to force a primary after watching two early debates and being dissatisfied with Hatch’s performance.
"This is not the Senator Hatch from 30 years ago," Liljenquist said Tuesday in a meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board, adding Hatch has been co-opted by staying in office too long.
"It’s kind of like the process of a cucumber becoming a pickle. There’s something about Washington that seeps in and changes you. After a while, you become a pickled politician. I believe in the military adage: be brief, be brilliant and be gone," adding that if elected he would serve no more than two to three terms.
Liljenquist began airing ads Wednesday attacking Hatch for ducking televised debates. He spent $125,000 for two weeks of ads that will air on broadcast stations and on the Fox News cable channel.
The ad shows Liljenquist saying, "Debates play a critical role in Utah elections. Senator Hatch used to believe this as well. In 1976, he challenged his primary opponent to eight debates."
Hansen criticized the thrust of the ads.
"I’m disappointed that Dan Liljenquist in his first ads out of the box chooses to take a negative slash-and-burn-type of approach, symbolic of what FreedomWorks [an independent anti-Hatch group] tried in the pre-caucus period. "
Liljenquist said the ad is not negative but that it challenges Hatch to debate.
Hansen said Hatch has numerous ads on television "that are positive ads featuring the senator and others focusing on the Finance Committee," which he hopes to lead. Hansen declined to say how much Hatch is spending on his current ad buy, but said it is "significantly more than" the $125,000 that Liljenquist is spending on his.
Meanwhile, McKay Christensen — who volunteers with the Liljenquist campaign distributing lawn signs — continues a hunger strike that he began on Saturday urging Hatch to debate Liljenquist. In a Facebook post on Monday, he said he lost 8 pounds in the first two days.
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