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Tamar Hallerman

Who’s dodging whom? News of lone Senate debate leads to pointed fingers

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Georgia U.S. Senatorial candidates including Libertarian Amanda Swafford, Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, from left to right, conclude their debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, in Atlanta. David Tulis / AJC Special

Three Georgia U.S. Senate candidates, Libertarian Amanda Swafford, Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, debate in 2014. David Tulis / AJC Special

It took less than 24 hours for the three candidates running for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat to begin squabbling about the abbreviated debate schedule and whether their opponents were trying to dodge the public and media scrutiny.

We told you Wednesday about how the October 21 Atlanta Press Club debate will likely be the only head-to-head matchup between Republican Johnny Isakson and his two challengers, Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley, before Election Day.

It’s the same number of debates that was held in 2010, the last time Isakson’s name appeared on the ballot. But both Barksdale and Buckley are livid.

The two men wanted more opportunities to build name identification and take direct shots at Isakson, who has built an enviable $5.7 million war chest and Rolodex of backers, in front of a statewide audience.

Both argued Isakson was ducking the press by only agreeing to one debate:

“Johnny’s strategy is simple and straightforward: Use the war chest acquired from special interest groups to run nice guy commercials and deceptive ads calling him conservative…. If there is no debate, how will anyone know about his voting record?” Buckley said in an email.

Isakson’s campaign fired back. It said the two-term incumbent has gone out of his way to be accessible to the media and constituents alike, citing dozens of interviews, press releases and newspaper editorial board meetings.

“Johnny Isakson has spent countless days traveling the entire state and has done hundreds of interviews with Georgia and national reporters,” said Trey Kilpatrick, Isakson’s campaign manager.

Isakson’s campaign then shifted its fire back to Barksdale. It said he was being hypocritical when it comes to any attacks about media accessibility and that the political newcomer, who had a slower start to his campaign, has not held a press conference in three months.

“Our Democrat opponent has refused to answer tough questions from the media. He needs to do his due diligence and go out and meet with Georgia voters and answer tough questions from the media before he goes around making demands of Johnny Isakson,” Kilpatrick said.

Barksdale had pitched six one-on-one debates between himself and Isakson in the state’s six major media markets. In a radio interview Thursday morning, Barksdale said the half-dozen matchups were necessary since each region has its own local concerns that should be addressed by the Senate candidates.

“I think it’s a terrible disservice to the state, to representative government to try to have people make uninformed decisions,” said Barksdale of the single debate. He said Isakson wanted to “keep me as unknown as possible because that’s the way he gets back to Washington.”

Buckley, who was shut out under Barksdale’s proposal, said he participated in seven televised debates against Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin when he ran for Senate back in 2008. As for Georgia’s last go around in 2014, we counted three general election debates in the open and hotly-contested race to replace Chambliss.