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by Dr. John Hart, professor, College of Communication

 

The event was much anticipated, as previously Akaka had declined to appear at the same forum with Case. The questions from the audience at the HPA event, often addressed to both candidates, may have helped persuade the Akaka campaign of the need for the recently announced debate scheduled for PBS Hawai‘i on Aug. 31.

Case’s decision to run for the nomination against a member of his own party is unusual. However, it is not without precedent. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s recent loss in that Democratic primary was viewed by many as an anti-Iraq war vote. Akaka has consistently opposed the war in the Senate.

The race has the potential to affect other races as well. In Hawai‘i, voters have to decide to vote in the Democratic or Republican party primary. Voters choosing to pull a Democratic ballot to vote in the Akaka-Case race will not have the option of voting in any Republican races.

Some view the decision to run against Akaka political suicide. Case will have to give up his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to run for the Senate. The decision to run against Akaka may have been due to age. Akaka is 81. U.S. Senators serve six-year terms. Conventional wisdom says he would not run in 2012, at the age of 87. Why then would the much younger Case not “wait his turn?”

The answer may lie in Hawai‘i state law. If Akaka is not able to complete his term, Republican governor Linda Lingle would appoint his replacement. Under Hawai‘i law Lingle can only run for governor twice. Many presume she will run for the Senate in the future. State law and tradition have been that the governor will appoint a person from the party that they are replacing. In the past, she has been criticized by Democrats for not appointing the strongest Democratic candidate. Why should she, if she may be running against that person?

Current polls show Akaka ahead of Case. Being the incumbent with a lead, Akaka has not committed to any debate with challenger Case. Debates have often been defining moments in election campaigns. Both candidates have run a series of media advertisements to very mixed reviews. Facing a well funded incumbent running a strong campaign, the Hawai‘i Publishers forum may have been the challenger’s last best hope to create a situation to bring the incumbent to accept a challenge to debate.

The joint appearance was a contrast in the candidates’ positions and styles. Akaka seemed comfortable in his well-received prepared remarks but appeared to have difficulties with the question and answer period. Case seemed to have a greater command of policy specifics but at times came off wooden compared to the warmer Akaka.

Case in his opening remarks attacked Akaka in his strongest language yet, directly questioning the Senator’s record of achievements. Case positioned himself as a moderate Democrat representing the majority of the party, claiming Akaka was an extremist.

Akaka too, implied Case voted more like a Republican than a Democrat. Akaka’s speech seemed very reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s approach when the elder Reagan debated Walter Mondale during the presidential race of 1984. The senator used humor and appeals to tradition in an attempt to defuse the age issue and preferred to talk story over point by point analysis.

The question and answer period allow attendees to direct a question to either one or both candidates. In a sense then, although not called a debate, the forum did share much of the format of most modern political debates, a moderator, open statements, and a question and answer period.
In the question and answer period, the difference in the candidates’ positions became marked. Akaka is for an announced timetable on an Iraq pullout of troops, Case wants to be flexible based on what happens there. Akaka supports the Jones Act, popular with Hawai‘i’s Democratic supporting unions; while Case called it a government granted monopoly that costs the average Hawai‘i resident more money.

Akaka’s supporters seemed more vocal in the hall; Case’s more whispered. The question will be; how loud will the whispers be behind the ballot curtains? Will the winner be the last hurrah of the old guard or the voice of a new generation? Either way this race is the marquee event of the political season.

 

 

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