Dan Webster has declined to debate Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, whom he is challenging in Florida’s District 8.

For one thing, Webster has said he didn’t want to participate in debates that included Tea Party candidate Peg Dunmire. For another, as this profile illustrates, it’s not his style, especially when he’s challenging “a better-funded, more flamboyant candidate.”

So while Webster rallied supporters on the first stop of his “F150 Pickup Truck Tour of District 8″ on Wednesday, Grayson debated Dunmire, independent candidate George Metcalfe and an empty lectern with Webster’s name on it.

Grayson used the platform to spread his antiwar message and defend his vote for health care reform.

“We have 45,000 Americans who die every year because they don’t have health insurance,” he said, saying the measure could save lives. For that reason, he called the vote his “proudest moment” in the House of Representatives.

He also defended the notorious “Taliban Dan” ad, which his campaign has pulled from the airwaves. His campaign had been trying to draw attention to Webster’s positions on marital and social issues (later presented in another ad, which his campaign points out has passed muster with factcheck.org).

Those issues had received scant attention from the media, he said, so “the only way we can get this information out in front of the public is to run these ads.”

When the candidates got to ask each other questions, Grayson asked Dunmire when they first met, in an effort to debunk allegations that Grayson is connected to the Tea Party.

She said she met him for the first time at a town hall meeting on mortgages, and for the second time at an earlier debate.

Grayson followed up: ”Are you in cahoots with me or not?”

“Absolutely not.”

Dunmire and Grayson both slammed Webster for not showing up to the debate. The Orlando Sentinel offers an explanation:

The former state senator has said he wouldn’t be able to stay positive if forced to share a stage with Grayson, who has labeled him “Taliban Dan” and a draft-dodger in attack ads.

Grayson said that congressional representatives often have to fend off lobbyists, their party’s leadership, and other interests seeking favors. They have to be tough.

“If you’re not tough enough to show up in a debate and face [Sentinel columnist and co-moderator] Scott Maxwell, you’re not tough enough to do the job.”

Maxwell himself wrote beforehand:

I still think Webster’s going to win this race –  and have a hard time seeing how tonight’s debate would alter the outcome. So Webster should think about the message he wants to send — about both his own values and character and his respect for voters and the elections process.

It may be good strategy to duck debates. But it’s not good for Democracy.

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