Some candidates mum on tough policy questions

Senate candidates find it easier to keep quiet about controversial issues

By Henry C. Jackson

Published October 15, 2012 12:52PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Curious what Virginia Republican Senate candidate George Allen thinks about his own party's law that forces women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds? Too bad. He refused to say during a recent debate.

How about whether Arizona Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona would support Majority Leader Harry Reid next year? Carmona's not talking about that. Former Maine Gov. Angus King has nothing for you on whether he'd side with Republicans or Democrats if his independent Senate bid works out. And Paul Ryan's proposed changes to Medicare? Not relevant, said Republican House candidate Chris Collins of New York; not going to answer, said Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel of Ohio.

"I'm someone who looks forward and not backward," says Collins, who's trying to unseat Democrat Kathy Hochul in New York's most-watched House race. "And the Ryan budget is in the past."

Thanks for the questions, but these and other candidates are just flat-out refusing to reveal where they stand on sensitive matters of public policy. Their likely calculus: No answer is better than one that alienates critical voter groups — like women or seniors.

It's more than the kind of artful dodging that has a long tradition in political campaigns. It's the fear of committing candor that's both damaging and hard to take back in the age of fast and lasting social media.

Think Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican Senate candidate challenging Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill who was all but abandoned by his own party over comments he made about "legitimate rape." Or Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's secretly recorded remark that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as victims entitled to government largesse. Or President Barack Obama's comment that if you're successful, "you didn't build that," a statement chanted relentlessly by Republicans at their party's national convention.

All have apologized for or tried to explain their comments. But in an election year of tiny margins that have refused to budge, every core voter group matters. And time is running out to rebound from mistakes.

So on prickly issues, some candidates aren't even bothering to spin.

Take Allen, who is happy to opine on a number of policy areas where he disagrees with his opponent, Democrat Tim Kaine, in one of the country's most competitive Senate races. Allen speaks freely on taxes, spending and Kaine's support for Obama.

But, struggling to win women voters, Allen froze when asked during a debate this month about his own party's abortion law. Signed in March by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, the law requires abdominal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions in Virginia. Victims of rape or incest who reported the attacks are exempt. State lawmakers initially had sought to mandate a vaginally invasive form of an ultrasound.

Instead of providing his position, Allen changed the subject to contraception.

Strategists in both parties say there is some political usefulness in stonewalling. The idea is for a candidate to be nimble and keep his options open. But campaign veterans say avoiding a stance on an issue that is on voter's minds also risks making a candidate look unsure of themselves or nakedly political.

"Some issues matter a little, some matter a lot, and some don't matter at all," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist. "A good candidate recognizes the distinction between issues that have an impact on their election and those that will not. And generally speaking, if it's important and relevant to voters, most successful candidates will answer the question."

The strategic nonanswer is a bipartisan practice.

Three Democratic Senate candidates running in tight races in Republican-leaning states have waffled on whether they would back Reid, the Senate majority leader.

King, the former Maine governor, is the ultimate non-answerer, vexing Republicans and Democrats vying for control of the Senate by running as an independent. He won't say which party he'd generally vote with if he wins.

House candidates have also gotten into the act. Several Republican contenders, leery of being tagged as open to cutting Medicare, have tried to avoid the topic of the budget outline passed by House Republicans this year.

Avoiding an answer has not worked as well for Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel, running against Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Brown has made his backing of the auto bailout, which affected 800,000 people in his state, a focus of his campaign. Mandel, though he talks often about wanting more auto jobs, has repeatedly refused to say whether he would have supported the bailout.

Henry C. Jackson

MORE FROM Henry C. Jackson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Arizona Claire Mccaskill From The Wires George Allen Tim Kaine Todd Akin Virginia