Tinker's Challenge 

The 9th District candidate can use the debate stage to dispel doubts about herself.

Good for Nikki Tinker.

Contrary to what had first been rumored weeks ago, the chief challenger to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen in next month's Democratic primary has not said no to debates with Cohen, one of the ablest forensic performers in local, state, and maybe even national politics. In accepting at least one debate offer — from WREG, News Channel 3 — and potentially others to come, the Pinnacle Airlines attorney has crossed a Rubicon of sorts.

Also taking part in the WREG debate, and presumably available for other joint forums, is state representative Joe Towns — recognized as a distant third-place prospect in the primary. But, as a fellow African American and one, moreover, who has already launched some scorching rhetoric Tinker's way, the seasoned Towns is clearly a potential spoiler for her chances, and his inclusion in this first debate opportunity makes Tinker's acceptance of it appear all the more forthcoming.

But the high-profile Cohen, generally regarded as a clear favorite (not least because of his assiduous courtship of the 9th District's black majority) is her main adversary. Crossing rhetorical swords with him means above all that Tinker will have to publicly articulate positions on matters that until recently she had been a closed — or even blank — book on. Matters like health care, the war in Iraq, tax policy, Social Security for starters. These are basic congressional issues and ones that Cohen has dealt with repeatedly — in the case of one or two of them, earning favorable national attention.

In 2006, when she was one of 15 candidates for what was then an open seat, Tinker emphasized biographical details like her rise from difficult circumstances in a single-parent family, her professional success as a corporate lawyer, and her mainly nominal status as a sometime campaign chairman for then congressman Harold Ford Jr. Explicitly and often, she also made the most of her gender identity in that otherwise all-male field.

In fairness, it should be recognized that the issues which figure in a given political campaign have a way of metamorphosing or even disappearing by the time a successful candidate begins to take on the shifting ad hoc challenges of actual service in office. And Tinker's reliance on a bio that was itself fairly bare-bones was perhaps as good a strategy as any two years ago.

The straitened national circumstances of 2008 — a "change" year in politics — render such an approach beside the point, especially for a repeat candidacy like Tinker's. She seems to understand that, and her official website makes a run or two, however tentative and limited, at issues per se. She backs presidential nominee-in-waiting Barack Obama's non-mandated health-care proposals; she calls for the fuller funding of No Child Left Behind; and she would repeal President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy while extending further tax breaks to the middle class.

That's about as concrete as Tinker gets, but it's a start, one that presumably will be amplified in Sunday night's debate.

Her questioners this weekend will undoubtedly press Tinker for details on basic policy matters. They also should, and no doubt will, ask her to do what both Obama and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain have had to do more than once — namely, renounce both the indefensible statements and policy positions of extremist supporters and the supporters themselves. In Tinker's case, this means those responsible for racist and anti-Semitic attacks against Cohen.

She should also be prepared with positions on an assortment of issues — like hate crimes legislation and Turkish genocide against ethnic Armenians — that have so far been thrown up one-sidedly against Cohen.

Lastly and crucially, Tinker needs to articulate a clear and comprehensive position on abortion rights. Right now she is counting on the votes of church-going African-American fundamentalists to whom the very idea of abortion is abhorrent. But the proprietors of the Emily's List PAC have endorsed Tinker and contend that she has answered to their complete satisfaction a very detailed questionnaire supporting the pro-choice position.

Like every other candidate for national office (and like Cohen, who is unmistakably pro-choice), Tinker will have to clarify exactly where she stands on this deal-breaker of an issue.

Now that it's debate time, Nikki Tinker has a long-deferred opportunity to provide specifics and eradicate doubts about herself. Good for her that she's willing to try.

Senior editor Jackson Baker is the Flyer's political columnist.

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