OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bob Kerrey on Thursday publicly challenged Republican opponent Deb Fischer to debate him on health care reform and other issues, saying voters deserve more opportunities to hear the candidates' views prior to the November election.
Kerrey, a former U.S. senator and Nebraska governor, held a news conference Thursday to publicly issue his invitation.
He and Fischer, who are vying for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who opted not to seek a third term, have only one debate set at next month's Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island, but Fischer's campaign said Thursday that she plans to debate Kerrey at least three times before the November general election.
Kerrey said Thursday that shaping affordable health care access for all Americans is too important to ignore.
"Health care is a crucial issue for Nebraskans," Kerrey said. "I haven't talked to any business person, any individual who hasn't said the cost of health care is a big problem in their lives."
Kerrey criticized Fischer for declining an invitation to a candidate forum in October at Creighton University and has called for at least seven debates before November. But Fischer's campaign fired back, noting that Kerrey engaged in a total of three debates in his 1988 and 1994 campaigns for U.S. Senate.
Kerrey dismissed the comparison, noting that he backed out of primary election debates in 1988 when a third party candidate was invited to participate and that his two debates as an incumbent U.S. Senator in 1994 with a Republican challenger was enough at the time.
He said debates nowadays are as much about informing voters about issues as debating those issues.
"There's much more interest in debate today," he said. "It's much more likely that people will understand what goes on in a debate, even if they don't watch it, because they can pick it up on the Web."
Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, agreed that there is more interest from the public is seeing candidate debates than in recent decades.
"I think in the age of electronic media, people expect to see televised debates," Landow said. "The candidate who refuses does so at their own risk."
But Kerrey's reason for wanting a glut of debates likely has more to do with his belief that he'll look more articulate and informed on complex national issues, such as health care and the nation's budget, Landow said.
"It's not really a matter of who's smarter. It's a matter of who's better at public presentations under pressure," Landow said. "It's all about experience and stage presence and charisma. And I think Sen. Kerrey thinks he has it, and he thinks that she doesn't. And I think she might be concerned about the very same thing."
Fischer and Kerrey have drastically different views on the subject of health care reform.
Kerrey has said he's interested in an idea floated by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee that would see the federal government and state "swap" responsibilities for Medicaid and public schools. That swap would have the federal government take full responsibility for Medicaid, a federal-state program for poor and disabled people, while states would take full responsibility for public schools.
Fischer wants the health care law fully repealed and proposes allowing health insurance be sold across state lines to expand options and restricting malpractice awards to restrain health care costs.