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
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
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
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
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.