JACK SPENCER: Land’s apparent mantra: Above all, avoid a slip up

Nearly everyone likes to say elections should be decided by the issues, but in the real world issues provide only part of the story. Slick-talking politicians with carefully crafted images win and win often. When it comes to style versus substance, style takes more than its share of the cake.

Being able to articulate one’s position is vital for any candidate. Having the gift of gab, a taste for arguing a point and the capacity to think on one’s feet are valuable political attributes. Candidates who lack these abilities are at a distinct disadvantage.

Neither candidate in Michigan’s U.S. Senate race could justifiably be accused of being a slick politician. Neither the Republican candidate — former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land — nor the Democratic candidate — Congressman Gary Peters — is bursting at the seams with charisma.

Peters, however, is perfectly comfortable engaging reporters and fielding questions. Land clearly isn’t. The degree to which Land was once comfortable with that aspect of seeking office vanished this past spring after she fumbled a question on the auto bailout of 2009-2010.

Details of Land’s mishandling of the question are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that she ended up looking “unready for primetime.” That incident, along with others, has shown that Land struggles with anything that takes her even slightly off script. This is a limiting handicap and one that plagues her campaign

The likely seed of Land’s dilemma is the fear of making a verbal slip up. Once that fear becomes manifest, the fear itself has a tendency to dominate every open exchange. It is difficult to participate in any give-and-take on an issue if your number one priority is to avoid saying the wrong thing. In fact, the fear of saying the wrong thing almost invariably leads to either actually doing so or being obviously evasive.

The potential impact of the U.S. Senate race on other races down the ballot may be the key element contributing to Land’s problem. Yes, the Republicans want Land to win, but above all they want her to at least keep the race close. If Peters were to take a big lead it could discourage GOP voters who are primarily interested in national issues from turning out. Such a scenario could hurt Republican chances across the board. This pressure to “keep it close” is probably a major factor behind Land’s overriding fear of missteps.

Clearly, Land’s campaign has to be carefully managed. She can articulate her positions on issues in recorded TV, radio and Internet ads and in speeches. Having won two statewide elections to the post of Secretary of State, she is presumedly comfortable talking with individual voters one on one. It is the unstructured interactions involving the news media that threaten to bruise her Achilles heel.

As it should, the Peters campaign is taking advantage of the situation. Peters has called for five debates with Land. This leaves the Land campaign with two bad choices. To let her debate, knowing her limitations in an uncontrolled format would be running a huge risk. But not accepting the challenge means being accused — and rightly so — of ducking the debates.

The potential political cost of avoiding debates is probably less menacing to the Land campaign than participating in them. In addition, the campaign could give a plausible reason for not debating.

At the beginning of the first gubernatorial debate of 2006 then-Governor Jennifer Granholm attacked her Republican opponent Dick DeVos on something totally irrelevant that was completely out of left field. It involved a multi-state nursing home company, in which DeVos had invested, that included a nursing home at which abuse had occurred.

In the days following the debate the news media basically found that the link DeVos had to the nursing home company was so indirect that it hardly warranted a mention — let alone an attack. The supposed issue had no legs and was virtually forgotten within a matter of weeks. Nonetheless, Granholm’s mudslinging accomplished what she wanted to accomplish. DeVos was put on the defensive by the accusation and knocked off his game. He went on to give a weak performance throughout the rest of the debate.

Land’s campaign could point back to that 2006 debate and say: “We think we’re on a winning track and are not about to let something like that happen to our candidate. Our opponent is saddled with his vote in favor of Obamacare and might try almost anything during a debate in an effort to create a diversion.”

Whether or not the Land campaign would give such a reason, or whether it gives any plausible reason at all, the odds currently seem to be against there being direct debates between Land and Peters in this year’s U.S. Senate race.