CHARLESTON -- U.S. Rep. Bob Wise is a bully for trying to shape the format of gubernatorial debates this fall, says a spokesman for Gov. Cecil Underwood.
The Democratic nominee for governor has said he will not participate in gubernatorial debates that include Independent candidate Denise Giardina or Libertarian Bob Myers. Both will be on the general election ballot.
"We think democracy is served if West Virginia voters have as much information about their choice as possible," said Rod Blackstone, a spokesman for the Republican governor's re-election campaign.
While Underwood is asking every debate host to invite all four candidates, "We suspect there will be organizations that do not honor our requests," Blackstone said.
The two men have already agreed to appear three times together without Giardina and Myers.
Underwood decides which debate invitations to accept based on his schedule and campaign plan, not on the format, Blackstone said.
"We're not going to try to bully people around to do things our way or no way," he said. "That's what that kind of ultimatum is. It's an attempt to bully, beat up on people, which doesn't really serve democracy much."
Wise has said he will insist that debates use the criteria adopted by the Non-Partisan Presidential Commission on Debates. The commission invites only participants who have obtained the support of 15 percent of respondents to a poll.
"At this point we don't plan on attending any debates that don't meet that criteria," said Wise spokesman Mike Plante. "That's the fairest format.
"The voters deserve to hear the major party candidates who have a realistic chance of winning exchange their views," Plante said.
"To be called a bully by the Underwood campaign is like being called ugly by a frog," Plante said. "It's ironic Mr. Blackstone would use such a characterization since Mr. Underwood refused to debate his opponents in the primary."
Wise and Underwood will met at an Aug. 26 forum sponsored by the West Virginia Medical Association and one on Aug. 31 sponsored by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. They also have agreed to an Oct. 18 debate sponsored by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association.
Myers said Wise's ultimatum is "a Washington cop out. That's Washington, D.C., politics, bringing Washington, D.C., politics to West Virginia, which is exactly what Bob Wise proposes for the state."
Myers is inviting Giardina to meet him in seven debates on college campuses this fall. Wise and Underwood also will be invited.
"If they choose to show that's wonderful. If they choose not to show we will have two empty chairs to illustrate the point," Myers said.
Giardina she would attend debates sponsored by student governments if all candidates are invited.
"I don't think Wise is a big bully. I think he's a wanna-be dictator who is trying to stifle the free-flow of ideas. I don't know who he thinks he is. He is not the only candidate in the race and neither is Governor Underwood," Giardina said.
She said she will complain to any group that doesn't invite her.
"If they don't want all the candidates there then I question their commitment to the democratic process," Giardina said.
The 15 percent standard is arbitrary and set by a committee made up of Democrats and Republicans, Giardina said. No poll is reliable enough to base a debate cutoff on, she said.
"Any candidate who avoids debates doesn't deserve to be a candidate. They have no respect for the electoral process, the issues or the electorate," Giardina said.
Giardina was notified this week that she had gathered enough petition signatures to win a place on the ballot. If she receives 1 percent of the vote, the Mountain Party she is trying to form will not have to petition for ballot access in the next election.
The Libertarian Party gained ballot access in 1996. Myers has to receive 1 percent of the gubernatorial vote this year for the party to retain that status.