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Groups Make Case for Inclusion of Their Issues in Next Debate

Immigration groups, campaign finance reformers and other advocacy organizations that say they got shorted in the first presidential debate are preparing a fresh push for airtime.

In the past several months, assorted interest groups have launched online petitions, spent millions of dollars on advertising and dispatched field teams to swing states in hopes of getting the next president to address their priorities.

Now, with two debates on domestic policy to come, the campaigns, moderators and the debate commission are facing an onslaught of appeals from groups who feel they were snubbed in the first go-round.

“We are going to pick up the phone, send emails and ask our member companies – at the highest level possible – to engage with the moderators and the presidential campaigns,” said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for the Information Technology Industry Council, which wants the candidates to present their positions on visa reform and trade in the coming debates.

Gavin said one of his first calls will be to Mike McCurry, Democratic co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The group wasted no time Thursday morning declaring the debate “devoid of new ideas and bold approaches to create jobs,” and it plans to send a list of suggested questions to Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who is moderating the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11, and CNN’s Candy Crowley, who is hosting the second showdown between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama on Oct. 16. The Information Technology Industry Council sent a similar six-page letter to Jim Lehrer, Wednesday night’s moderator.

“It’s probably one of the most important questions in the political process: How do you get into the debates?” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of anti-abortion political action committee Susan B. Anthony List.

The group unveiled a new super PAC earlier this week that immediately spent $500,000 in advertising in Ohio, Virginia and Florida. The PAC is considering bracketing the next two debates with the same ad.

When it comes to social issues, especially abortion, Dannenfelser said a public campaign with a grass-roots component is more effective than personal appeals.

“I think that we reach a more hostile audience among the questioners and the commission,” she said. “They are generally disinclined to ask the question on that topic.”

Other advocacy groups prefer to quietly work the back channels, concerned that a major public push could backfire.

“We think the best way to get that question placed is not necessarily by launching a public campaign,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. “It’s like lobbying – one person, to the next person, to the next.”

The group has submitted an op-ed to the Lexington Herald Leader that it hopes will run in advance of the vice presidential debate next week at Centre College in nearby Danville, Ky.

Another group of environmentalists, led by the League of Conservation Voters, launched a petition urging Lehrer to press the candidates on climate change. The petition closed with more 66,000 signatures, but Lehrer didn’t bring up the topic.

There is a similar strategic split among campaign finance reform advocates, who want the candidates forced on the record about the influx of undisclosed and corporate money this election cycle.

Common Cause, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and other transparency advocates petitioned Lehrer to ask the candidates whether they would support an amendment to the Constitution overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. He didn’t.

The relatively unstructured debate presented opportunities for the candidates to address campaign finance, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.

“I can see exactly why they didn’t. They are both up to their eyeballs in it,” she said. “To go through these three debates and ignore the elephant in the room would be a disservice. … But I’m kind of hesitant to tell reporters how to do their jobs.”

A few industry groups struck political gold, though.

Coal stocks rose Thursday after Romney declared, “I like coal.” It was a big win for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which spent the summer pushing its cause online and to voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia in hopes that the candidates would use the debate to address the consequences of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Romney paid his respects to the National Federation of Independent Business and President Barack Obama gave a shout-out to AARP (which shouted back Wednesday evening, asking him to keep the group out of his talking points).

Generation Opportunity, a conservative youth voter mobilization group, celebrated a more modest victory.

Romney recited a statistic – half of today’s college graduates cannot find jobs – from a Rutgers University study the group had promoted.

“We’ve been flagging that thing to people for months,” said Paul Conway, Generation Opportunity’s president.

Clarification: Oct. 5, 12:43 p.m.

An earlier version of this article implied that an op-ed was submitted by the National Resources Defense Council. The op-ed was submitted by the NRDC Action Fund, a 501(c)(4).

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