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Friday, May 9, 2014 - 12:50pm

Georgia’s Top Political Debates Kick Off Sunday

This weekend kicks off a round of political debates for the year’s highest-profile election races in Georgia. Democrat Michelle Nunn will be squaring off against the other contenders in her party for the U.S. Senate, and David Perdue will be doing the same on the Republican side.

Nunn and Perdue are the front runners in their primaries, according to recent polls. They’re vying for the seat being vacated by Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring.

Debate experts say Nunn and Perdue, who will appear in debates on Sunday at GPB, need to stay positive, and not let the candidates trailing them in the polls rattle them or induce them to commit an error.

In turn, those lesser-known candidates will be trying to position themselves either as spoilers in this year’s elections or for future runs at office.

Avoid 'Rick Perry Moment'

“You have to be far more aggressive and hope that you press enough buttons that the front runner makes a mistake or puts the proverbial foot in his mouth or has what we call a ‘Rick Perry moment’,” James Roland, a debate coach at Emory University’s Barkley Forum, says. “They’re the ones who are really trying to score points or throw the front runner off.”

Roland is referring to a moment in a debate during the 2012 Presidential campaign when Texas Governor Rick Perry lost his train of thought and said, “Oops” on national television. It wound up being a joke on the late-night talk shows and effectively ended his candidacy.

Kathleen Searles, a political scientist at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, agrees that only the front runners need to be so careful.

“For the rest [of the candidates], it’s all out warfare,” she said.

And that could test Nunn, who has been cautious about staking out a specific stance on issues and has no political record to run from.

Nunn Leads, New Poll Finds

Searles says her strategy has been to “paint herself as more conservative than typical Democrats and then flesh out the details when the field becomes clearer.”

The debates come just as a new poll conducted by a New York pollster for the AJC shows Nunn has developed leads over the GOP candidates running for Chambliss’s seat, Democrats and Republicans. Her lead against Perdue, however, is the smallest, according to the polling form Abt SRBI.

Nunn is a former nonprofit executive, whose father, Sam Nunn, was a longtime U.S. Senator from Georgia. Perdue is the former CEO of Dollar General and a cousin of Sonny Perdue, who was Georgia’s Governor from 2002 to 2010.

Perdue and Nunn have been out on the campaign trail, actively courting voters. And experts say the debates will provide an opportunity to combine ideology with presentation in a way that crystallizes the candidate’s image and captures voters’ attention.

“That’s one of the things great politicians have a capacity to do – not just know the information but package it in such a way that the electorate starts to see themselves as having no other choice but to vote for that candidate,” Roland said in an interview Friday.

Next Wednesday, the two Republican candidates challenging Gov. Nathan Deal for the GOP nomination, State School Superintendent John Barge and former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, will debate each other, but not Deal. The Governor declined to participate in the debate.

No Show? Helps Candidates, Hurts Voters

And increasingly that’s common among incumbents, said Searles of GRU.

“It’s frustrating as a voter but I can’t say it’s not a smart move,” she said. “It makes it easier for Deal not say anything stupid. If I were his campaign manager, that’s what I would recommend. But yes, as a voter, it is disappointing.”

Barge and Pennington each have a slim chance of edging out Deal, though they may force a runoff. The AJC poll released Friday found Deal leads Democrat Jason Carter by three percentage points.

The debates are part of the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debates. For the full schedule of debates, visit the Press Club's site.