Labor Day is the traditional kick off for the general election season, but the Ohio gubernatorial race got started a day later in Youngstown with the first of four debates between Republican Ken Blackwell and Democrat Ted Strickland.
The first debate was not remarkable for the amount of insight it gave voters into the candidates and their plans for Ohio, but it was unusual in its setting here in the Mahoning Valley. The other three debates will be held in the state's three largest cities, Cleveland (Sept. 20), Cincinnati (Oct. 4) and Columbus (Oct. 16).
For the most part, each candidate worked harder on characterizing his opponent than on detailing his platform. A panel of journalists, one from each of the three television stations -- WFMJ, WKBN and WYTV -- and one form The Vindicator, asked 13 questions ranging from local economic issues to the war in Iraq.
No unexpectedly, the candidates were generally cautious in their responses -- sometimes, unfortunately, to the point of being nonresponsive. No candidate who has invested years in the political trenches wants to make a big mistake this early in the game.
We do now know that Blackwell considers Strickland a tax and spend liberal and Strickland considers Blackwell part of a Republican cabal that has run the state into the ground. Not that we couldn't have guessed as much.
But we also know that Blackwell remains committed to his proposal to lease the Ohio Turnpike to a private operator, that the keystone of his plan to upgrade education in the state is a requirement that all districts spend no less than 65 percent of their income on classroom instruction rather than administrative costs and that he believes replacing Ohio's graduated income tax with a flat tax of 3.25 percent would spur economic growth.
We also know that Strickland maintains he can pursue his plan to "Turnaround Ohio" by economizing rather than raising taxes and that he plans to get state money back to local communities.
What we don't know is how, exactly, the candidates intend to reach their goals. And, as everyone knows, the devil is in the details.
It was easy enough for the candidates to outline their plans in generalities in the first meeting. It will become increasingly difficult in sessions two, three and four to avoid specificity and to fall back on campaign rhetoric and catch phrases.
To some extent, there is only so much that a moderator and a panel of questioners can do to hold the candidates to a high standard of answering questions directly. The format used in this debate, and presumably in future debates, gives a candidate the opportunity to respond to a question, his opponent a chance to rebut and the first candidate a brief counter response.
The candidates themselves have the best opportunity to hold each other to a high standard of responding fully and honestly to the question asked. More than half the time Tuesday, one candidate or the other could have opened his rebuttal by saying, "My opponent didn't really answer the question, but here's what I'd do."
Perhaps it is asking too much of the candidates to be that aggressive, but we don't think so. If the debates are going to be truly enlightening for the state's voters, each candidate is going to have to do a better job of answering questions and demanding that his opponent does likewise.
If that leaves less time for Blackwell to call Strickland a liberal and for Strickland to call Blackwell a conservative, so much the better.