LANSING, Mich. -- In the existing public climate of dissatisfaction with both major political parties, the phenomenon fringe-party candidacies has blossomed this fall. Would-be Ross Perots are popping up all over the country, and they are proving harder to ignore by the news media as voters look sympathetically, if not supportively, on those willing to offer an alternative.
Their insistent presence poses a dilemma for the major-party candidates, and especially for sponsors of candidate debates including radio and television stations. Should they be included, out of simple fairness, at the risk of creating a discordant babel? Or should they be excluded, so that voters can better hear the views of the candidates who have a real chance of winning?
In the Michigan Senate race primarily between former Republican state Chairman Spencer Abraham and Democratic Rep. Bob Carr, the dilemma got a real test the other day. Three other candidates representing the Libertarian, Workers' World and Natural Law parties shared the platform with them in a television studio. The result was a fair imitation of the weekend free-or-alls that have come to be standard fare on the political menu.
The Libertarian, John Coon, sniped at Abraham and Carr with great relish. The Workers' World candidate, William Roundtree, repeatedly sang a one-note song for a $10 minimum wage. And the Natural Law candidate, Chris Wege, proposed the practice of transcendental meditation as the path to sweet reasonableness in public dialogue and an end to gridlock in Congress.
Abraham and Carr, at times patiently listening, at other times felt obliged to go at each other loudly and carpingly to get their points across as they heard the one-hour time allotment being eaten up by the three fringe candidates. They got so heated that at one point the well-controlled Wege -- he seemed almost to be transcendentally meditating right there -- roused himself to scold them for "bickering." Such conduct, he said, was "de-energizing" and "the American people are tired of it."
That observation was about as close to the truth as anything else uttered in the debate. Abraham's media consultant, Mike Murphy, who has prepared some of the season's most cutting negative television ads for his client, was asked afterward what he thought of the five-man format. "I think it made for some interesting television," he replied.
Maybe so, but it made for demeaning politics for participants and viewers alike, particularly because there were no ground rules and the candidates could and did break in at will to contribute their two cents. The moderator, Tim Scubick of WKAR-TV in Lansing, made a valiant effort to keep some semblance of order, but the task was too much even for his considerable professional skills.
As a result, much more heat than light was shed and inevitably the major-party candidates were the losers, not in the debate exchanges but in the five-way format. The three longshot candidates at least got what such candidates understandably always long for -- having somebody pay attention to them.
But such relatively unbridled debates don't serve the cause of voters who are faced with only two realistic choices and should make an informed decision on the basis of what they are able to learn about the serious contenders. Maybe the answer is a number of debates, some with all candidates listed on the ballot, some with the two major-party candidates. The five-way Lansing debate never would have taken place had not Coon gone to court and obtained a judge's ruling that he had to be included. Abraham at first balked at a three-man debate but agreed to proceed when the station suggested inviting the other two fringe candidates as well.
This exercise may well encourage other candidates of little-known parties to go to court to get their moment before the cameras. If it leads to more verbal circuses like this one was, it will be too bad. On the other hand, if it leads to more debates of all shapes and sizes, with an emphasis on real issue differences, it will be good for everyone, not least the voters trying to make informed decisions.