The Strafford County Republican Women's club announced yesterday that it will host a one-on-one debate between Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. All the women need is a time, a place - and an RSVP from Thompson.To co-sign the letter inviting Thompson to debate, click here.
Last week, Thompson skipped the Republican presidential debate at the University of New Hampshire, announcing his candidacy on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. On Fox News last week, he knocked the value of debates with eight or nine candidates onstage and extolled the virtues of Lincoln-Douglas, mano-a-mano debates, saying: "That is the way that you find out how somebody really thinks."
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor with a reputation as a smart debater, pounced. His campaign sent an open letter to Thompson welcoming the former Tennessee senator and Law & Order star to the race and suggesting the pair hold a Lincoln-Douglas debate in New Hampshire. That's when the Strafford County Republican Women got in the act, deciding to host a Huckabee-Thompson debate.
Kaitlyn Smith, the group's president, said she invited Thompson at a chili fest he attended this weekend in Stratham. He was noncommittal, she said. "He said, 'If I can be Lincoln,' or 'Can I be Lincoln?' " said Smith, who has not endorsed any candidate.
His campaign kept up that tack yesterday. "I did not know Mike Huckabee wanted to play the Stephen Douglas role," said Thompson spokesman Jeff Sadowsky. Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln held their famous series of debates in 1858 when they were competing for Senate. The debates catapulted Lincoln to the national stage, but Douglas won the Senate race that year.
Despite questions about whether half the show was on board, yesterday Smith sent out a press release saying that her group would co-host a debate between Huckabee and Thompson. The release was sub-headlined: "Huckabee has accepted debate challenge."
For its part, the Huckabee campaign is delighted to have the Strafford Republican Women host or CNN broadcast the potential debate, as Wolf Blitzer suggested to Huckabee in an interview Sunday. New Hampshire Campaign Director Debra Vanderbeek says she has no doubts about her boss's ability to shine in the forum.
"No, not at all. Not one iota. . . . He has no problem sitting down, Lincoln-Douglas debates, anytime, anywhere," she said. "The only downside, I guess, is if the governor showed up for a debate and the other chair was empty."
Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, appears at ease in debates, cracking jokes and spinning wide-ranging analogies off the cuff. "He does really well in town hall meetings; he's done pretty well in these debates," said Wayne Lesperance, an associate professor of political science at New England College.
A lifelong social conservative, Huckabee has worked to court anti-abortion voters to his side and has gained steam in some polls, though he still trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and Thompson.
Thompson could cut into Huckabee's support, Lesperance said, as he, too, often touts his socially conservative credentials. "This is a battle of the conservatives," Lesperance said.
It's also a no-lose for Huckabee, Lesperance said. If Thompson signs on, Huckabee gets a bigger spotlight and could win the debate. If Thompson doesn't do it, Huckabee gets to bring it up all the time.
"Boy, this is a great example of what having a lot of time to campaign will teach you, which is there is no such thing as an off-the-cuff remark," Lesperance said. "If he says no, if he doesn't agree to do it, he's in a real pickle."