Off Camera, Off Mike 

Now that a series of mayoral forums, televised and otherwise, is well under way, ample opportunities present themselves for Memphians to judge the candidates and choose between them. We can lament, as the principal challengers all have, the refusal of incumbent Mayor

Willie Herenton to take part in these joint encounters, but His Honor is clearly resolved not to, and that's that.

The usual reason why an incumbent ducks debate opportunities with opponents is to deny them a valuable form of publicity they could not achieve on their own. That isn't the case here, as Carol Chumney, Herman Morris, and John Willingham are all sufficiently well known in their own right already. What Mayor Herenton seems to be doing instead — spending a disproportionate amount of time in the inner city, where he autographs campaign T-shirts and mixes informally with the crowds at mass rallies — is concentrating on husbanding his African-American base.

Fair enough — though in a close race it may turn out to be shortsighted for the mayor not even to make an effort to maintain the inroads he made among white Memphians in several previous elections. Granted, these voters, along with middle-class blacks, for that matter, seem to have become discontented with Herenton. Or so the polls suggest. But it's sad all the same to see the mayor return to the color-based and potentially divisive electoral math that prevailed during his race with then incumbent Dick Hackett in 1991.

But at least the mayor is, for better or for worse, giving full rein on his campaign rounds to his authentic personality — by turns animated, macho, and (where his opponents are concerned) scornful. Though several of the also-rans in the mayoral race are showing their true colors, too, the only major contender consistently able to do so is curmudgeonly former county commissioner Willingham.

Since, however — to state it baldly — the only candidates who seem to have a real chance of unseating Mayor Herenton are Chumney and Morris, it would be helpful to the electorate if those two hopefuls could also loosen up a bit.

In public, both Chumney and Morris are afflicted with a much too formal manner — in Chumney's case, with a sensible-shoes approach that underscores the seriousness of her candidacy; in Morris', with a natural reserve that reflects his thoughtful, introverted nature.

Two recent appearances before private groups have shown a different side to both candidates, though. Talking to a small meet-and-greet crowd, Chumney, speaking casually but evidently from the heart, told a chatty but moving and empathetic tale about the homeless people she knows personally. It was the antithesis of "canned." Simultaneously, at a private fund-raising affair, Morris was delivering himself of a passionate and seemingly spontaneous analogy of 21st-century Memphians, anxious about crime, to their counterparts of the 1870s trying desperately to hold on to life and order and family in the face of the devastating Yellow Fever epidemics of that time. He flat got down.

Unbuckle a little bit more in public, Carol, Herman. It will help us decide.

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