FORT WAYNE –  It was my second reelection campaign for Congress. My Democrat opponent worked hard, but was unknown, underfunded and inexperienced. In other words, if you were the incumbent, a seemingly perfect candidate. 
 
Then came the first televised debate. My challenge was to stay on message while my opponent wandered, trying to capitalize on the fact that I was reliably controversial. Then, as I prepared to answer the moderator’s question I heard Mark Wehrle conclude his answer by stating that Souder brought “pawn shops and Hooters to Fort Wayne.”
 
This came not only as a shock to me, but also to most viewers who thought of me as rather “Amishy.”  In other words, not a Hooters guy and probably not even a pawn shop person.  In fact, the only time I had been in Hooters was in Indianapolis while working for Sen. Dan Coats.  We were looking for a television to see Dan live on the early news.  Sharon Soderstrom said “there’s one,” we stepped inside the door, watched and left.  That was my experience with Hooters, prior to the congressional debate.
 
But now here I was. I turned directly to my opponent and said, “You have no clue what being a congressman is about.” But debates aren’t just about the debate.
 
Victor Locke of WPTA-TV always knew an attention-getting line when he heard it. Our next debate was actually a pre-taped, sit down with him (Locke) which would be aired on a Sunday morning with perhaps somewhere between five and 17 voters watching. Except that WPTA developed a promo that asked, “Did Souder bring Hooters to Fort Wayne? Tune in Sunday morning for the 4th District congressional debate” or something like that. And they promoted it in prime-time, reaching tens of thousands of people with each ad. It was the lead question in that debate, which was otherwise totally forgettable.  
 
But even this is not the end of the story. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel then endorsed me with an editorial pointing out that I did not bring Hooters to Fort Wayne. Some felt that I was going to get blamed for bringing it, but now lose what residual gain I was going to get from those who liked the place.
 
Candidate debates are in some ways like an Indianapolis 500 race or a hockey game:  Perhaps you remember the winner, or maybe a goal, but you definitely remember the crashes and the fights. Without wrecks and brawls, they mostly seem to go by at a fast rate of speed and in rather repetitive fashion.
 
The candidate debate that established many of the core principles of televised political debate was the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. 1.) Kennedy looked young and vigorous (though actually had Addison’s disease) and Nixon old and tired (Kennedy was 43, Nixon 47). The key word is “looked.”  2.) Wear make-up (my favorite make-up story was one time before going on FOX News in Washington, an older make-up lady whispered to me that she had formerly done Nixon’s make-up – I tried to stay calm) and 3.) It doesn’t matter if you won on debate points to those listening on radio.  In other words, who cares about substance?
 
Yet those who strenuously advocate debates act like they are the savior of public discourse and add intellectual weight to political campaigns. Among the chattering classes, of which I am now part, debates will be a major subject until May 8. Congressman Todd Rokita, by having the audacity to refuse to participate in what is being called the traditional debate, has justifiably made debates a bigger subject than they otherwise would have been.
 
I understand the stated reasons that Rokita gave in turning down this particular debate, beyond his silly whining about the moderator. Republican internal campaigns don’t need the same outside refereeing that fall campaigns do. The Republican nominee should debate Sen. Joe Donnelly in different formats in different locations. A primary is different. But politics also constantly evolves. As elections become more canned, and more candidates are more or less just “hired guns” who don’t reside in their home communities, what protections do voters have against getting some version of Weekend at Bernie’s? 
 
And, frankly, skipping a debate at the end of a race, in this day and age, looks like a candidate has something to hide, even if they don’t. It lends itself to a speculative attack – what is he hiding? – and, if something is charged, the claim gains significant credibility because it logically appears that the absent candidate was afraid to face the truth.
 
Of course, Rokita is also right that debate panelists feel pressure to ask what many candidates view as “gotcha” questions (we candidates have a much broader definition of what constitutes a “gotcha” question). Ironically, the more candidates become distant visual images and don’t live among us, the more pressure the media feels to play the image of an inspector general. 
 
Unfortunately, most reporters today have to rely on hearsay, actual “fake news” or the traditional, possibly fake news generated by planted information from supporters of opposition candidates. Unfortunately, any true “gotcha” moment likely will not come from any investigation, but from tripping up a candidate with a question. 
 
If this is Rokita’s concern – that he is ahead and could get tripped up with a mistake – he may replace Congressman Luke Messer as the official “acting like he’s the incumbent” candidate. Furthermore, these debates are mere warm-ups for the main event against Sen. Donnelly, who has survived many such gut fights and is still correctly viewed as a nice guy for a politician. Why should Republicans choose a candidate, in a race as important as this one, who is afraid to even debate other Republicans?
 
The irony is that Mike Braun continues to increase his chances as a threat to win. He looks hungry and determined to win, as opposed to playing the traditional politics of incumbency. He looks like he wants to fight for people, taking on all comers, not afraid of voters and hiding out in Washington behind his controllers. Braun may not be polished in a debate, but he doesn’t have just marbles or clichés in his mouth. Well, at least not all clichés.
 
The upshot of the debate decline is that Rokita is likely going to have to reverse his debate decision or both congressmen may lose. It reinforced claims that he is a control freak, and potentially puts his lead at risk. 
 
Donnelly is the incumbent. He is running like he’s still a challenger. You’d expect his challengers to be doing so as well. Rokita generally does, but backing away from a debate is out of character and exposed his fear of making a mistake. Voters want to see that you know that you work for them, not the other way around.  They want to see how you hold up under maximum pressure. 
 
In a three-way primary race there might be room for one “incumbent-pretender” to win the nomination, but not two of them. And not in 2018. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.