Republican incumbent fails to debate two independent challengers

From the Naples Daily News:

Republican icon Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Republican Congressman Connie Mack has his own variation on the theme. “Don’t speak at all, at least not in the presence of your challengers. And carry a big wad of cash.”

Mack, again, is making a practice of not appearing at campaign forums with his challengers. He employed it two years ago and ended up with 64 percent of the vote.

Why mess with success, right?

For candidates struggling to raise money and suffering from poor name recognition, a face-to-face forum with the incumbent is a chance to shine and perhaps to expose weakness in the opposition.

But Mack’s three challengers, Democrat Robert Neeld and independents Burt Saunders and Jeff George, have been afforded no such opportunities.

There have been at least four candidate forums where all the candidates _ except Mack _ for Mack’s 14th Congressional District seat have appeared.

Mack’s campaign appearances so far have been more controlled. He’s attended a series of “meet and greets,” organized by his campaign, where the congressman talks to constituents.

The coming weeks offer more chances for Mack to take on his challengers head-to-head but so far there’s little indication that he plans to do so.

The Cape Coral Civic Association is planning an event tonight which Neeld, Saunders and George have said they’ll attend but Mack has not.

The League of Women Voters in Lee County is planning a forum on Oct. 23, again without confirmation from Mack.

Saunders has been trying to lure Mack out into the fray, so far without success.

In July, he sent Mack a letter asking him to join him in debates or town hall meetings organized by independent third parties.

He received this response from Mack campaign manager Jeff Cohen: “If and when any challenger to Congressman Mack _ whether that is you (an independent), Robert Neeld (a Democrat), or Jeff George (an independent) _ becomes a viable opponent we will of course consider their request for a debate.”

Exactly what qualifies one as a viable candidate?

Saunders, Neeld and George aren’t kooks. They’re not out there advocating Florida’s secession from the union or claiming 9/11 was an inside job.

Saunders is a Republican state senator forced from office by term limits. Neeld is an accountant hoping that Saunders and Mack will split the Republican vote. George is an entrepreneur fed up with the influence of special interests in politics.

About the only thing standing between them and viability, it seems, is money.

Mack has a lot of it. The others do not. The latest campaign reports from the Federal Election Commission show Mack has raised more than $1 million for his re-election bid. The other three candidates combined have about one-tenth that amount. Most of the $86,000 Saunders has raised is in the form of a $45,000 loan he made to his own campaign. Neeld has raised just over $1,000 in addition to the $10,000 he loaned himself. George loaned himself $7,000 and raised another $8,000.

The challengers find Mack’s absence from the campaign trail frustrating. “He’s going to lay down and spend his three-quarters of a million dollars on heavy TV (advertising) and expect that to be enough for voters who don’t do any research,” Neeld said.

“His strategy seems to be to pretend there’s no election, ignore the competition and hope it will go away. It’s anti-democratic,” George said.

Contacted Monday, Cohen expanded on the “viable candidate” pronouncement: “None of the opponents have demonstrated any serious level of support. They have few if any volunteers or contributors. They have been virtually absent from campaigning. And none are taken to have any serious chance to win by any reputable expert or journalist. It is not our campaign’s responsibility to help them get exposure for what so far have been their almost invisible campaigns.”

Given Mack’s failure to attend campaign events with the other candidates, the “absent from campaigning” line is ironic.

With all due respect to reputable experts and journalists, voters are the ones who should decide who wins elections, a job made tougher when the incumbent doesn’t deign to appear alongside his counterparts.

Neeld is still hoping to shame Mack into at least one joint appearance, perhaps the League of Women Voters event in Lee County. “The League has a reputation of being fair and balanced. They work hard to try to inform the public. I would hope he wouldn’t disrespect them,” Neeld said.

E-mail Brent Batten at bebatten@naplesnews.com

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