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U.S. Senate candidates Begich, Sullivan plan first debate Wednesday

Nathaniel Herz

Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and his newly minted Republican challenger Dan Sullivan square off Wednesday in their first debate, just eight days after Sullivan proclaimed victory in last week’s primary election.

The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, and it’s hosted by United for Liberty, a coalition of right-leaning groups whose vision statement says that current and future generations will have a higher quality of life “when we have replaced government overregulation with increased personal responsibility.”

“Come hear Democrat Sen. Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan debate on the serious issues facing this nation such as the erosion of our individual liberties, bloated, unsustainable debt, Alaska specific issues of concern, and their larger vision of America in an ever changing world,” the group said in a Monday press release

How did United for Liberty, which counts the Anchorage Tea Party, Conservative Patriots Group, Alaska Republican Party and Alaska Republican Assembly as member groups, convince Begich to participate?

“Actually, I think he was solicited at a card game,” said Michael Chambers, the chair of the state’s Libertarian party who’s organizing the United for Liberty debate. He wouldn’t provide further details, and neither would a Begich campaign spokesman beyond acknowledging that the senator “is a card player.”

Wednesday’s debate is among the first head-to-head contests in the high-profile U.S. Senate races on the November ballot, and it comes even before the deadline for the state to receive absentee ballots from last week’s primary election.

Chambers said third-party candidates had been invited, but he added that the presumptive Libertarian party nominee Thom Walker has not responded to inquiries. Neither had Vic Kohring, the Alaska Independence Party’s presumptive nominee, though Kohring said in an email message Saturday that he had not been contacted.

“I was not invited to be a participant at next week's United for Liberty debate and see that my name does not appear on their schedule,” he said. “The elusive Thom Walker and I have not been included.”

The moderator will be Dave Cuddy, a high-profile local Republican whom Begich requested, Chambers said.

The debate includes three main phases. The first includes a series of questions on defined topics from fish and game to immigration, fiscal policy, and health care.

In the second phase, Sullivan and Begich will each ask their opponents four questions. The last phase includes a “big question” that Chambers said is “designed to really get dialogue back and forth.”

Between each section, the candidates will answer 10 questions in a series of three "Final Jeopardy-style" whiteboard rounds, in which they’ll write answers individually, then flip them and show the audience.

Some of the questions are serious, others less so.

“The audience is going to go nuts,” Chambers said.

On their way out, audience members will be presented with an exit poll asking who won the debate. (Participants will also be asked to give their party registration.)

Begich said before last week’s primary election that he would appear at 13 debates. Wednesday’s is the first; his second is scheduled for the following week in Juneau, at an event hosted by the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

A spokesman for Sullivan said he has committed to Wednesday’s debate and a separate event in Juneau the following week hosted by the local chamber of commerce. That event was not on Begich’s initial schedule.

“We are reviewing requests as we receive them, and will announce our debate schedule shortly,” the spokesman for Sullivan, Mike Anderson, wrote in an email.