What made Mazie Hirono change her mind about debating Ed Case?

To hear her tell it, as she did at a press conference Monday at her Kalihi campaign headquarters, it was a Hawaii couple she ran into at the San Francisco airport on her way back home from Washington, D.C.

Hirono, the U.S. representative, said the couple told her they had seen one of the four debates between the leading Democrats for the U.S. Senate.

For this couple, said Hirono, the debate made clear four big differences between the two candidates — Case’s support for raising the retirement age on Social Security, for extending the Bush-era tax cuts, for supporting the Iraq War and for opposing President Obama’s jobs plan.

“So Ed, let’s have another debate,” she said. “Let’s have a televised statewide debate so that the people of our state will see crystal clear the differences between me and Ed Case.”

In a press release later Monday, Case accepted Hirono’s “change of mind.” But he added that “the devil is in the details.”

“There are 40 days before the August 11th Democratic primary election,” he said. “These must be real debates that reach most voters in primetime before they cast their votes, whether it be on August 11th or by absentee mail-in or walk-in voting.”

“I’m also not sure how Mazie intends to choose among our main network television stations who have extended four debate invitations,” he continued. “I’ve accepted them all, and I believe she should as well.”

The invitations include one from Civil Beat and our media partner KITV.

To show how unexpected Hirono’s decision was, she admitted at the press conference that she didn’t know which station(s) should broadcast the debate.

“I am hoping one of your stations will provide us that opportunity,” she said to the cameras at the press conference.

When will it happen?

“We are going to have those discussions,” she replied.

The Debate Over the Debate

Hirono brushed off a suggestion that perhaps the race is close, as Civil Beat polls determined in January and just last month, and so maybe she needs to shake things up.

Instead, she said the voters deserved a fifth debate, as promised. That debate — to be held during the state convention by Oahu Democrats in May — was cancelled and never rescheduled.

The other debates were held in June — the first courtesy of the Hotel Lodging & Tourism Association, and then three back-to-back debates with AARP Hawaii on Maui, Hawaii Public Radio and PBS Hawaii.

The Hirono campaign also released poll numbers Monday that show her with a 15-point lead over Case. The survey of “Hawaii Democratic Primary voters” was conducted June 19-21 by the Benenson Strategy Group of Washington.

Just two weeks ago, Civil Beat reported that national political experts predict the primary will be a cake walk for Hirono.

So, what’s really behind her debate strategy?

One clue is something Hirono pointed out at the press conference: the money raised and already spent by Linda Lingle and her supporters. It includes more than $115,000 in TV ads that the Republican candidate bought last week, even though she faces only nominal primary competition.

Why would Lingle even bother to spend money now, given the $500,000 that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already spent in TV ads on her behalf? So that Republican primary voters don’t pull a Democratic ballot to vote for Case. Civil Beat’s polling shows Case is a stronger opponent against Lingle in the general election.

Another possible Hirono strategy: to get her base to turn out on Aug. 11. (Absentee voting-in-person begins July 30.)

Despite the once-in-a-generation Senate race, the nonpartisan Honolulu mayor’s race has sucked up a lot of the political oxygen. The leading candidate is a former Democratic governor supported by a lot of Republicans who want to stop the rail project.

Hirono also seems to feel she did well in the debates, as Case does about his performances. A fifth debate could serve to remind loyal voters why they like Hirono, and to vote for her. It might also help Hirono dilute one of Case’s most consistent campaign arguments — that Hirono has ducked debating him.

One final thought: Saturday was the deadline for federal campaign contributions during the April-June reporting period. We’ll know soon enough how Hirono, Case and Lingle did — and whether their take is changing their strategy.

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