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Nancy Smith

Of Course Alex Sink Doesn't Want to Debate on National TV

February 15, 2014 - 6:00pm

Well, you can hardly blame her, can you?

Last time Alex Sink appeared on a nationally televised debate, she got caught cheating. Cheating -- captured on camera, shown on CNN to millions around the world. No fun when you're running as the favorite for governor of Florida.

So, hey, she's bound to be a little paranoid.

People are watching just to see if I brought my brains this time, aren't they? Are they laughing at me? Wait! DID I bring my brains? Anyone I see with an iPhone is fired ... Wait! What was the question?

The 2014 Alex Sink, Democratic candidate in the CD 13 special election, was always bound to bolt like the Looney Tunes road runner when NBC asked to put her Feb. 25 debate with Republican David Jolly on MSNBC. There's a ton of pressure on her. She carries the hopes and dreams of the national Democratic Party to pick up a precious House seat. And don't think they forget to remind her every time they write her campaign a check.

Bottom line: Sink will not agree to a debate on national TV.

Imagine what a job her handlers are having, trying to spin this sow's ear of a decision. NBC News White House correspondent Chuck Todd wanted to serve as moderator.

Dangnabbit, Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Clifford told The Tampa Bay Times, "You don't get very many opportunities to get national TV." The chamber is sponsoring the debate.

Talk about your instant downsizing. Now, instead of an audience of millions looking on to see how a closely watched, tic-tight congressional race is playing out in a key state, the event will have a maximum audience of 400. First dibs on tickets go to members of Clearwater's chamber, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. At least the event will have savvy politico Susan MacManus, University of South Florida professor, as moderator.

Still -- big, gigantic deal to small potatoes in the blink of an eye.

The TV turn-down isn't because the Clearwater chamber is partisan. It isn't. Though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Jolly and has run TV commercials supporting him, the local chamber chapter has done everything it can to stay neutral.

What does the Sink camp say in explanation? Nothing officially. Off the record, one source close to the campaign told me, "Alex will step out in front of the lights plenty once she's elected. Some of us feel TV doesn't play to her advantage in a campaign like this and we don't want anything to distract from her getting her message out loud and clear."

Well, I'm no expert, but I know one sure way to keep Sink from getting her message out "loud and clear" is to hide her from as many voters as possible before the March 11 election.

Here's my theory:

This is all about protecting President Obama. Sink's personal paranoia is secondary.

You know what David Jolly is going to do as soon as cameras start rolling, he's going to attack Obamacare. If Sink is on national television, she is honor-bound to defend it. And Chuck Todd will come after her like she's Butch Cassidy and he's the Texas Ranger. But Obamacare is not popular in CD 13. She can't afford to go overboard defending an unpopular law among would-be constituents, providing incentive for Republican voters to come out to defeat her -- and risking Chuck Todd tearing her apart while the president's team watches.

BUT: If she's not on national television, she can waffle on the Affordable Care Act, downplay it or even fudge on her approval of it if Jolly lets his guard down. Then she can move to another powerful issue in coastal Clearwater, flood insurance. She has talking points memorized on flood insurance.

The point is, this highly visible race to replace popular Republican Congressman Bill Young, who died in October, is in its last frenetic month. The two candidates over a short haul have spent more than $6 million,Sink and Democratic organizations about $3.7 million on TV ads, and Jolly and Republican groups $2.5 million. Neither can afford to make a colossal mistake at the eleventh hour, it's a scramble for every vote.

The Sink folks still could change their minds and go national with the debate. Only they know what pressures they're facing today. If they agree, I'll be excited at the prospect, but very surprised.

(Sink, Jolly and Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby did participate in a debate at St. Petersburg College Feb. 3. It was co-hosted by The Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9, aired live on C-SPAN 3 and seen regionally. Have a look at the debate in its entirety here.)

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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