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Media can help the candidates stay focused on issues

You could call it the Miracle on 45th Street.

Immediately after the final whistle of the Cowboys-Cardinals game Sunday night, KPTM-Channel 42, the Fox station at 45th and Farnam, treated the big football audience to an hour-long prime-time debate between 2nd District congressional rivals Peter Hoagland, the Democratic incumbent, and Jon Christensen, his Republican challenger.

What will amaze you is that for 60 minutes, they said not one harsh thing about each other. This, despite the fact that the closely contested campaign has featured the usual barrage of negative ads and, as moderator Byron Wood noted at the outset, such less ordinary features as reported death threats and both candidates taking lie-detector tests to substantiate their version of disputed events.

The three previous debates had been of the finger-in-the-eye variety. What made this one different was a simple rule laid down by KPTM and the co-sponsor, the Omaha World-Herald: "You may not mention your opponent's name."

"This forum," Wood told viewers, "is designed to let you hear why each of these candidates thinks you should vote for him, not against his opponent."

Larry King of the World-Herald and Bradley Gonzalez of KPTM, who handled the arrangements, told me that it was the newspaper's publisher, John Gottschalk, who suggested the unconventional approach because the "previous debates weren't really answering the questions people needed to have answered."

Once that basic rule was set, the rest of the format was simplicity itself. Three veteran members of the World-Herald staff alternated in questioning the candidates, with two minutes allowed for each answer, and a follow-up available to the questioner to help clarify what had been left obscure.

It turns out that with that design, you can cover a great deal of ground and illuminate a great many fundamental differences.

For example: Hoagland favored changing the tax code to discourage consumption and increase incentives for saving. Christensen would support a flat tax on all incomes.

Christensen opposed and Hoagland supported the use of national standards and national testing to measure schools' performance. Hoagland, a crack shot in high school, said he no longer owns a gun and believes guns to be "a hazard," not a protection.

Christensen owns a 12-gauge shotgun and had his belief in the value of guns as protection reinforced by recent violent incidents in Omaha, he said.

Both attend church and believe in God. Hoagland said that in a "heterogeneous democracy, I should not use my leverage as a member of Congress to write my religious views into the statute book" and used the question to emphasize his support of abortion rights. Christensen, who in other forums has called for restrictions on abortion except when the life of the mother is threatened, did not choose to discuss that issue, but reiterated his support of "traditional values."

Asked about their concept of the duty of a representative, Christensen said that "when you are the hired hand of the people, you have to do what the boss wants." The sole exception, he said, displaying the copy of the Constitution he carries with him, would be when public opinion supported something that violated the Constitution. Hoagland, after detailing his roots in the community and asserting that "my views and values are very much mainstream Nebraska," said that, "the decisions I make are not always popular, but if I just wanted to be popular, I should have chosen a different profession."

There were other questions touching on national defense, immigration, Social Security, federal mandates and balancing the budget. The point is simply that any viewer had a clear definition in an hour's time of where these candidates were coming from and where their philosophy of government took them on key issues.

The candidates said afterward they liked the approach. "I had a great opportunity to put forward my Ronald Reagan vision for America," Christensen said. "It was a great relief not to have charges and countercharges," Hoagland said.

A good campaign needs to offer opportunities for the candidates to mix it up from time to time. But it also needs opportunity for quiet exposition of views _ and that option is rarely offered. At another television debate, in Hamden, Conn., two nights earlier, I had watched four gubernatorial candidates be frustrated by a format which limited them to one-minute answers and forced them into mini-debates with special-interest representatives in the audience. The first question from the moderator in that debate called on them to dissect the honesty of their opponents' ads _ and the hour passed without anyone learning what they would do if elected.

For us in the media, the lesson is clear. The format and ground rules are critical. We can't just blame the candidates for being negative. Build them an arena for a genuine exchange of ideas, and they will come.

Washington Post Writers Group

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