“I thought the \ gubernatorial debate was just an embarrassment,” Levine said. “We have a democracy that depends on citizens making informed decisions. If we’re not having full debates, citizens aren’t able to make informed decisions.” Levine insists his bill isn’t intended to give either party an advantage, saying that since the seat will be open, nobody knows who the nominees will be in 2010. He hopes his bill will be picked up in the spirit of reform as legislators consider bills on redistricting, term limits and campaign finance. Three debates open up the possibilities, experts say, for more insight into the character, personality and philosophies of the candidates. “It’s important because it’s one of the few opportunities where voters can decide for themselves,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of Sacramento State’s Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media. “They can watch someone answer questions without a script in front of them. They can frame how they feel about someone non-verbally. They view debates as more truthful because they know people can’t mask discomfort in a live setting.” Ned Wigglesworth, policy advocate for California Common Cause, said moving to three debates would send a clear message that the gubernatorial race is critical and that the issues are not so easily condensed into 30-second sound bites. “It would mean greater reflection among voters, greater investment in the elections,” he said. “A lot of voters want easy, clear choices, information in easily digestible forms. A lot of people would rather have information spoon-fed to them rather than take the time to do the research on candidates. Having three debates during the week at night makes it easier for them to take part.” Voters apparently want debates, even if dismal ratings might suggest otherwise. Typically, according to surveys since 1998 by the Public Policy Institute of California, nearly three-fourths of voters say debates are somewhat or very important in deciding their vote. But others see debates as a relic of a previous age, especially in this day of the ubiquitous remote control in the hands of an audience with an increasingly shortened attention span. By their nature, debates create a distance with viewers now accustomed to interactive media, said San Francisco State professor Melissa Camacho, an expert on mass media and culture. Candidates come off as well-coiffed, stage-managed, overly prepared mannequins, throwing out practiced one-liners that only appear rehearsed and manipulative, she said; they hew to stale talking points and policy positions that make little sense to the real lives of people. “We’re a public that demands more connection with our political leaders,” Camacho said. “Debates don’t do that, not in the way they’re structured. There have been efforts to make them more palatable, like the town-hall forums that Bill Clinton started, but they really haven’t been successful. The problem is that the only way you can get a lot of viewers’ interest in politics is through entertainment.” Stan Statham, who is president and CEO of the California Broadcasters Association, also isn’t sure voters would tune in to more debates. He also acknowledges that it would cost stations millions in advertising dollars to air more debates. Still, Statham is ready to support Levine’s legislation. “Anything that would inspire and/or force candidates to participate in debates, we’d love it,” said Statham, a former Republican legislator who moderated the 2006 debate. “The only problem is that by the second and third debates, people are watching the fifth reruns of `M*A*S*H*.’ They’ve made up their minds.” [email protected] (916) 441-2101 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Assemblyman Lloyd Levine has a plan to transform California’s apathetic masses into avid political consumers – or at least better informed ones. Levine, D-Van Nuys, is pushing a bill that would require not one, not two, but three general election debates between the two major candidates for governor. The bill, AB 970, which is scheduled for its first hearing later this month, would also create a debate commission that would tinker with various formats to generate greater interest. “It’s the marketplace of ideas,” said Levine, a third-term lawmaker who also has proposed banning less efficient light bulbs and mandating greater care of elephants, and is a co-author on a bill to allow assisted suicide. “Will it spur interest? I hope so. Some will see all three, but they’ll at least have more opportunities to see one. Those who do see all three will be more informed to make a decision.” But whether that comes to pass is subject to its own debate. Levine is bucking California’s history of limited debates, not to mention television viewers who are more inclined to watch sitcom reruns, a general hostility toward politicians, and everyday distractions. “Everyone’s busy. They’re all multi-tasking,” said Arthur Asa Berger, an author on numerous books on the media and culture. “There are so many distractions and news is so bad, people are tuned out. People find ways to keep their lives busy, so I don’t know if more debates will make that much difference.” Debates will continue to be useless, Levine said, if incumbent governors are able to dictate the terms, largely to insulate themselves from exposure that could hurt them in the polls. Since the 1970s, no incumbents have agreed to more than two debates, and no incumbents have been unseated in that time. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continued the tradition last year, even refining the art of limiting his exposure by holding the sole debate on a Saturday night – typically the lowest night for viewership – up against playoff baseball and college football games. His campaign advisers also carefully set the rules, requiring both candidates to sit at a table with the interviewer, giving more the impression of a friendly conversation than a back-and-forth debate. His Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, complained to no avail that it signaled to voters that it wasn’t a serious confrontation.