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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Tough Questions You Won't Hear at the Debates

March 01, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

I have not been invited to take part in the debates involving Democratic and Republican presidential candidates that will be held today and Thursday, right here in my own company's building.

The reason is perfectly obvious. Everybody on the candidates' campaign staffs--and everybody in this building, for that matter--is clearly afraid of the kind of questions that I would ask.

In fact, when it was first disclosed that John McCain was thinking of skipping Thursday's GOP debate to campaign in New York instead, I naturally surmised that it was because McCain had presumed I would be among the reporters firing questions at him.

Brave war hero or not, I knew he'd duck me. Dealing with that warm and fuzzy New York media would be a snap compared to what McCain would face here in California.

Then came word Tuesday that the Arizona senator was agreeable to participating in the debate after all--even, if necessary, via satellite.

By then, McCain's staff undoubtedly had been assured that I would take no active role in these Los Angeles Times/CNN debates, the only ones scheduled in California before the Super Tuesday primaries of March 7.

He and George W. Bush, Alan L. Keyes, Al Gore and Bill Bradley all could rest easy. None of them would be required to field any of the blunt Qs that I had prepared for this specific Q and A, the answers to which could tip the entire election.

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Questions at the Times/CNN debates now will probably focus on the same old boring topics--government spending, health care, that kind of thing--rather than some really juicy stuff the candidates could be grilled about point blank.

For example:

"Mr. McCain," I had intended to begin. "A man who calls himself a friend of yours, author Michael Lewis, made an interesting comment in a recently published essay.

"Lewis said that upon informing you that he was moving to Berkeley, Calif., you wrinkled up your nose as if you had 'just swallowed sour milk,' and then asked: 'How could anyone live there?'

"Could you please clarify this?"

See? I would have McCain on the ropes, right from the beginning of the debate.

Picture him perspiring, tongue-tied, twisting in the wind. The man stands accused of being a vicious Berkeley-basher. I can envision the entire University of California campus there in revolt. Angry demonstrations and protests galore: "Where would you prefer us to live, senator? Palo Alto?"

I bet McCain would claim he was just making a joke. That he was speaking off the record. That he thinks Berkeley is actually a beautiful place, right up there with Phoenix and Flagstaff.

Too late.

"Mr. Bush," I would then turn and say to McCain's rival, just to be fair. "In your controversial speech at Bob Jones University, you said, and I quote: 'We conservatives believe in opportunity for all Americans, all Americans rich and poor, people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, born and unborn.'

"I am going to ask you this straight out, Mr. Bush, and I expect a straight answer.

"When you said that you believed in opportunity for all Americans 'rich and poor,' why did you deliberately leave out Americans who are neither rich nor poor? Some of us in California aren't rich and aren't poor! Don't we deserve opportunity, governor?"

Tripped up by his own words, I can see Bush now, insisting that he meant to include the upper middle class, middle class and even the lower middle.

Too late.

"Mr. Keyes," I would then add, leaving no one ignored. "Prior to the Iowa caucuses, you jumped into a portable 'mosh pit' and were carried bodily by the crowd. Gary Bauer accused you of betraying the dignity of the presidency by jumping into a mosh pit. My question is, why haven't you moshed in a California pit? Are our pits beneath your dignity?"

By the time I was through with Keyes, in the primary he'd probably finish no better than third.

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Don't think I would ignore Bradley and Gore, either.

Bradley, for example, wants support in California, but I happen to know for a fact that when Princeton defeated UCLA in basketball, he cheered for Princeton. What a two-face, seeking votes here now.

As for the vice president, you wouldn't believe the question I had for him. "Mr. Gore," I was going to say, "isn't it true that you. . . ?"

Nah, better not. Somebody would probably take the whole thing out of context.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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