With the election three weeks away, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer has yet to commit to a second debate with Republican challenger Bill Jones, a move likely to ensure a continued low-profile campaign for one of the state's most important elective offices.
If Jones and Boxer do not debate again, voters will have seen the two major party candidates in only one face-to-face encounter before election day -- and that was in early August, when fewer people were paying attention.
"So little attention is being paid to the U.S. Senate candidates that no issue has really become a salient issue," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll and a member of the California Broadcasters Assn. commission that had hoped to sponsor an Oct. 22 debate at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
"Sen. Boxer is not going to really do much to contribute to getting the awareness and attention drawn to the Senate race. She's not agreeing to debates."
Boxer's campaign blamed an unpredictable schedule in the Senate, which was supposed to have adjourned around Oct. 1 but remains in session. And even if the Senate adjourns next week, senators could be called back later this month to reconcile conflicting Senate and House bills drafted after the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations that the nation's intelligence community be reorganized.
Jones' campaign aides questioned the explanation from the Boxer camp.
"The Boxer campaign has refused to commit to a date, citing legislative requirements, but we note that Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] has committed to a debate, as have other members of the Senate," said Jones' strategist, Sean Walsh.
"Our belief is that Boxer can arrange for a date and should arrange for a date."
Mark Powers, vice president of the California Broadcasters Assn., said Friday that the group canceled the Oct. 22 debate because Boxer did not commit to it. He said part of the problem was Boxer's insistence that journalists pose the questions; the broadcasters planned to use voters.
"The minute a sponsor yields to a candidate on format, the credibility suffers," Powers said. Still, the group agreed a couple of weeks ago to a compromise in which journalists would suggest questions for a moderator to pose. Boxer still didn't commit.
"You've got somebody in office who's ahead [in the polls], and the last thing she wants to do is step out there and say, 'I want to give my opponent a real shot,' " Powers said.
Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the debate strategy.
But Boxer spokesman Roy Behr said the campaign continues to negotiate possible debates with the Jones campaign.
"We want a debate," Behr said. "The only thing left to do is figure out when to schedule it."
A Field Poll released this week found that 65% of the state's likely voters were not following the race closely, a level of indifference that carried over from an August survey. Only 8% said they were following it "very closely."
And though Boxer's support has eroded in the Field Poll from 55% in May to 48% this month, Jones' support has remained flat at 32% -- about the same as the percentage of Republican voters in the state.
Analyst David Binder said Boxer has little to gain from debating Jones again and lending him exposure that his campaign, which has had difficulty raising cash to buy television ads, doesn't seem able to afford.
"Jones probably looks at the debates as one of the only Hail Marys he has left to throw," Binder said. But Binder said he doubted that many voters would notice in the bright light of the presidential race.
"People are just not focused on that race at all," he said. "Even if Boxer agreed to a debate a night, I still don't know that the voters would focus as much, because voter interest is so much directed at the top of the ticket."