published Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Let the debates begin in Tennessee's 3rd district

The August 2 primary elections are a little over 24 weeks away, but it's pretty safe to say even at this remove that one race likely to draw a lot of attention will pit Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who currently holds Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District seat, against at least four challengers. That race already is in high gear.

Weston Wamp prompted much of the early interest. Wamp, 24-year-old son of Zach Wamp, who represented the 3rd District for 16 years, has to persuade voters that he is a meritorious candidate whose views and policies, rather than his family connections, merit election. His demand that Fleischmann and Scottie Mayfield engage in debates is perhaps the best way for him to do so. Wamp's opponents view the topic of debates a bit differently.

That's business as usual for Fleischmann, who rightfully irritated opponents and many voters in 2010 by carefully avoiding most debates. That may or may not be the case this time. Jordan Powell, a Fleischmann spokesman, said last week that the congressman would debate primary opponents, but did not provide a timetable. He said the congressman would do so when "when the time is right." That's too open-ended. Voters deserve a firm commitment from the congressman.

Mayfield, a recent entry into the 3rd District race, also seems hesitant to engage in debate. That's somewhat understandable. He doesn't need the publicity. He's familiar to many voters as the TV spokesman for his family business. Moreover, he's got deep pockets. That's a combination that could prove formidable for Fleischmann and Wamp, as well as Ron Bhalla and Jean Howard-Hill, other GOP candidates with fewer resources.

Mayfield's response to Wamp's challenge to debate is too coy. "I haven't gotten to that point," the candidate said. "I don't know that we're ready to get into those kinds of decisions." That's not good enough. Mayfield ought to be ready to debate, or reconsider his candidacy.

By traditional standards, it's a bit early for such debates, but this is going to be a more exciting than usual GOP primary year. Given that, the more the public hears the candidates, the greater the advantage to prospective voters.

Candidates should embrace debates, not eschew them. There's no shortage of venues, and the value of debate is not debatable. It is worthwhile. Face-to-face meetings are a fair way to measure a candidate's mettle and platform. Those who want to sit in Congress should engage voters through such events. The sooner and more often, the better.

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