The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce was thrilled when NBC News asked to televise its Feb. 25 debate with candidates in Pinellas County's closely watched congressional race.
"You don't get very many opportunities to get national TV," said Bob Clifford, the chamber's president and CEO.
But the plan, which would have featured NBC News political director Chuck Todd as moderator, ended when Democrat Alex Sink's campaign rejected the idea, Clifford said Friday.
"The issue was that they didn't want to do a nationally televised event," he said, and suggested directing any other questions to the Sink campaign. The NBC debate would have been shown on local affiliate WFLA Ch. 8 and portions would have been used nationally on cable channel MSNBC. The negotiations were first reported by Politico.
Sink spokesman Max Steele issued a statement that did not directly address television.
The statement said the Sink campaign previously had agreed to a "grassroots, forum style event with all the candidates, with a local moderator and with questions from the audience."
And it goes on to say, "This week, our campaign was informed that the Clearwater Chamber was planning to significantly change the event from the original format that was agreed upon, excluding a candidate and limiting grass roots participation. We've come to a mutually agreed upon format and we look forward to participating."
Asked why the campaign didn't want to provide a wider audience through TV, Steele declined to comment further.
Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Republican candidate David Jolly, said the development shows Sink wants to control the debate "because she knows she cannot go toe to toe with David in an open forum."
"What will she ask for next? A TelePrompTer or for one of her handlers just to do the debate for her?" Bascom said in an email.
Sink, Jolly and Libertarian Lucas Overby already have appeared in one debate that was televised on Bay News 9, in cooperation with the Tampa Bay Times and St. Petersburg College. And as the Sink campaign pointed out, another televised debate has been scheduled for Feb. 28 with WEDU.
The chamber's debate will feature Sink, Jolly and Overby, and will not be televised. University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus will moderate. Clifford said about 400 tickets will be offered first to members of Clearwater's chamber, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
The special election is March 11 in Congressional District 13, which stretches from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of downtown and central St. Petersburg cut out.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.