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Lowell Sun - Ogonowski's debate no-shows questioned

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Location: Lowell, MA

Ogonowski's debate no-shows questioned

Republican Congressional candidate Tom Tierney took the stage at a AARP-sponsored debate recently, and it was impossible not to notice that the second Republican in the race -- Jim Ogonowski -- was nowhere to be found.

Ogonowski's absence left Tierney with no one to debate but himself.

Tierney has seized upon similar situations to point out that he has yet to even meet his opponent in person.

"I was bemused at first that he was thumbing his nose at me," Tierney told The Sun. "But then I realized it's not me he's thumbing his nose at. It's the voters of the 5th District. If he won't appear before the public and answer questions before the constituents of the 5th district, then he's not fit to hold office."

The AARP debate was not an isolated case. Ogonowski's campaign has made a strategic decision to keep the candidate out of numerous debates that have been held throughout the summer all across the district.

Instead, the Dracut farmer and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel has campaigned in a different way, meeting voters at small gatherings and in public settings such as the Lowell Folk Festival.

He has also taken several trips to Washington, D.C., where he has met with national GOP leaders to discuss his candidacy.

"He's certainly looking forward to meeting with his opponents in this race," said Ogonowski spokesman Barry Flynn. "We're taking advantage of as many events as his schedule provides for, and he's looking forward to a substantive discussion on the issues."

Ogonowski has confirmed for four pre-primary debates, the first coming next Wednesday in a taped Channel 5 WCVB debate. It comes three weeks before the Sept. 4 primary. He is also scheduled to participate in two debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters on Aug. 21 and 23, and in a final debate on Aug. 27 at University of Massachusetts Lowell co-sponsored by The Sun.

Tierney has attended at least five debates so far, some by himself and others on stage with the five Democrats and two Independents running for the seat formerly held by UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan.

"Their strategy is basically to sneak him through the primary with a lot of endorsements, and hide him behind television ads," Tierney said. "I'm not that scary a guy. If he can't face me and the Democrats, and debate in this forum then I don't know how he's going to debate with world-class politicians in Washington."

Ogonowski's campaign insists it is not looking past Tierney to the general election. But even some Republican strategists in Massachusetts are questioning the tactics.

"There is certainly a strategy on the Republican side that Tom Tierney is not running a strong campaign, so maybe they don't see a need to debate him," said Holly Robichaud, a Republican political consultant. "But as for not wanting to appear with the Democrats, you have to assume as a Republican that you are the challenger. Whenever you are on stage with them, it would be to his advantage,"

Flynn said Ogonowski is not taking anything for granted in the primary, and looks forward to debating Tierney in the coming weeks.

The lack of exposure, however, could haunt Ogonowski. Should he make it to the general election, he will square off against the Democrat nominee who has been in the public eye for months, honing his or her debating skills.

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