Roxanne Conlin

Senator Chuck Grassley’s campaign spokesman calls it a stunt, but Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin has invited Grassley to debate tomorrow and she’s going to speak, whether Grassley’s there or not.

Conlin says she got the idea from Grassley’s wife, Barbara.  Earlier this summer Barbara Grassley campaigned with Republican congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks as Miller-Meeks was complaining her Democratic opponent was stonewalling about debates.

“You know, if he doesn’t up to a certain time, do the ’empty chair’ routine,” Barbara Grassley said.

Congressman Dave Loebsack and Miller-Meeks have debated this month, so “no empty chair routine” was required in that race.

Conlin and Senator Grassley made a joint appearance on Iowa Public Television last weekend, but Conlin’s campaign staff has reserved a room at the downtown Des Moines Public Library for a 90-minute “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate at three o’clock this Sunday afternoon — with or without Grassley.

“Fifty-two years in public life, 30 years in the United States Senate,” Conlin said recently.  “Why can’t he stand on a stage with me and defend his record?”

Grassley argues his frequent “town hall” meetings and conference calls with reporters give voters ample opportunity to learn where he stands on the issues and he defended himself vigorously during his only joint appearance with Conlin on Iowa Public Television.  Grassley specifically referred to the three reporters on the “Iowa Press” program.

“The point is that I’m available any time that people like you three want to ask me questions,” Grassley said.

Grassley accepted a debate invitation in late October, but Conlin says she has a conflict not only with the date, but the organization offering to host the event.

Some political scientists cite trends indicating candidates are making use of the Internet and other technology to specifically target their messages to individual groups of voters and debates — which are intended to reach a “mass” audience — are becoming less important.  Iowa League of Women Voters president Myrna Loerhlein hopes that’s not the case.

“The League of Women Voters really thinks that candidates need to let voters know what the candidate intends to do if they are elected to office and there are lots of good ways to do that,” she says, “but one really good way is, of course, a face-to-face evening with the candidates.”

In the past week, there’s been a flurry of campaign “debates” in Iowa.  Democratic Governor Chet Culver and Republican challenger Terry Branstad debated for an hour in Sioux City on Tuesday. Four candidates seeking Iowa’s second congressional district seat debated in Coralville on Monday and the two major party candidates in Iowa’s fourth congressional district made a joint appearance on Iowa Public Television on Friday.