Littwin: No-shows at the no-headline debate

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat if they gave a debate and nobody came?

It wasn’t quite that bad Tuesday night at the big Colorado Republican gubernatorial confab, but it was close. And the message will only get worse — that is, if Tom Tancredo actually keeps his word not to join in any debates and if Scott Gessler, the honey badger, continues to puppy-dog behind.

The Denver Post debate was dominated by the absence of the boycotters, who are the apparent front-runners in the field and who didn’t have a single good reason between them not to be there.

Tancredo has said he won’t debate his fellow Republicans because he doesn’t want to give Democrats headline fodder. Someone cue the laugh track. Tancredo, as we know, is a fodder machine. You don’t do 30 seconds over Mecca or say one president wants to merge the U.S. with Mexico (Bush) or that another is a dedicated Marxist (Obama) and then seriously argue that you’re worried about debating and/or exchanging pleasantries with Mike Kopp.

The more likely reason — as any Republican insider will gleefully tell you — is that Tancredo just doesn’t want to take the time. Greg Brophy says Tancredo is worried about showing how unprepared he is to be governor. My hunch is only slightly different: that Tancredo doesn’t want to show how uninterested he is in doing the work it takes to be governor.

Meanwhile, Tancredo has just finished making a campaign ad for Spanish-language media although he has said — of course — that he would never make an ad in Spanish. And when he was running for president — get that laugh track, I’m begging you — he refused to participate in a Univision debate because, you know, language. And instead he cut a supposedly funny Web ad showing his competitors at cockfights or wearing sombreros or dressed in lucha libre outfits, just to show there’s no stereotype he won’t entertain. Oh yeah, and he’s worried about fodder.

And Gessler? Well, he does have a better reason for not showing — although not a good one. He can’t want to be asked about the various mini-scandals attached to his name. If he goes to a debate, he definitely gets those questions. And there’s more — If he doesn’t have Tancredo, the fodder machine, to divert attention, that leaves him and Greg Brophy and Mike Kopp, the two policy wonks, to talk policy. As far as I can tell, policy hasn’t been Gessler’s strength.

Meanwhile, he’s just written a letter to the Joint Budge Committee, which is looking into Gessler’s budget issues. Gessler wrote that he was “disappointed with your committee’s behavior.” And you think there may be some committee members who are, conversely, disappointed in Gessler’s behavior?

(For those disappointed in my behavior, let me apologize for failing so far to mention the entertaining Jason Clark and stolid Steve House, two underdog businessmen who round out the Republican field. When asked at the debate about whether he can raise enough money, Clark said, “I’m single and independently wealthy,” so it isn’t a problem.)

The debaters were asked about the Tancredo/Gessler unexcused absences and gave the expected answers. As also might be expected, Brophy gave the toughest answer, recalling, for anyone who could forget it, the year of Dan Maes:

“I think we learned in 2010 that we can’t wait until August … As Republicans, we need to find out in March and in February if our candidates can answer the hard questions about themselves and articulate their visions of Colorado that voters will be comfortable with, so we don’t end up with the debacle we had in 2010.”

He said voters shouldn’t have to wait to find out if Gessler “can defend his ethics record” and if Tancredo “can keep the pledges he makes.”

There are a few ways this could play out.

At the Post debate, Kopp and Brophy were left as second-tier candidates in a debate — more like a forum — in which no one got to really shine. There were some interesting questions and answers — Clark said he didn’t want to smell pot and Kopp/Brophy both said they were pro-personhood — but it was a no-headline debate.

Wouldn’t you have wanted to see Brophy call out Gessler on his budget shortfall? Wouldn’t you want to see someone ask Tancredo if he thinks cutting a Spanish-language ad will get him off the hook with voters who remember that he thinks pressing 2 on the telephone is a threat to American culture?

Sure you would, but there’s another scenario. In this one, the skipping of debates will be recognized for what it is — an impolite, impolitic snub of Republican primary voters. And that with each skip, the Tancredo/Gessler snubbers will have to answer to an increasing number of snubees. It might come to be how they’re defined — as the candidates who were not there.

And so you won’t be surprised by one more scenario. This just in: Tancredo and Gessler both told 9News that whatever they might have said before, you shouldn’t necessarily believe them. And so, yes, they might just show up for later debates. Why? Well, here’s a guess: Because they’d have to be complete fools not to.