It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the great debate set for a week from Sunday in Highland Park began to crumble.
All we know for sure is that it turned to dust at 8:44 p.m. Thursday, when an official with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign pushed "send" on an e-mail to debate organizer Steve Temkin, informing Temkin that Obama would not participate.
Just eight days earlier, it was looking like it was going to be the political event of the year in Lake County. All seven candidates were interested in appearing and WBBM-Ch. 2 was making plans to send a star anchor and top political reporter to the debate and air it on tape delay after the late news.
A seed planted in a living-room meeting of the Moraine Township Democratic Organization in early December was about to bloom.
"We wanted something big," said Temkin, 48, a marketing and advertising professional who also works occasionally as a campaign consultant and serves as an elected precinct committeeman. "Lake County has a reputation as a Republican stronghold, and we thought we should hold events to raise the profile of Democrats up here--make people stand up and say they're proud to be Democrats."
He put out feelers to the Democrats on the ballot: Debate, anyone?
Representatives for Obama, former Chicago school board president Gery Chico, radio talk show host Nancy Skinner and health-care executive Joyce Washington said yes, Temkin said.
Representatives for Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes were "90 percent yes," Temkin said, while Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas' campaign said maybe and wealthy citizen Blair Hull's campaign said probably no.
With such a crowded field, it's not uncommon for one or two candidates to miss a debate: At least one candidate was missing from three of the four major Senate primary debates in Chicago in the last two weeks, for instance. So Temkin, who had signed up 11 other Democratic groups in his area as co-hosts, believed he still had a significant event going.
So did officials at Channel 2. When Temkin called the station as part of an informal survey on campaign events that local TV stations were planning to cover, producers there perked up when he mentioned his debate. In recent years, local political debates have been the franchise of WTTW-Ch. 11 and WLS-Ch. 7, but WBBM is looking to get in the game, a spokeswoman said.
Station representatives traveled to Highland Park to meet with Temkin and scope out school auditoriums on Jan. 26. They wanted a shorter event--one hour, not the 90-minute-plus program Temkin had in mind--and therefore shorter answers from the candidates. And, understandably, they wanted one of their own anchors to moderate (I'd earlier agreed to do it and gladly accepted a new role as a member of the panel of questioners).
Channel 2 called an organizational meeting for Jan. 29, and both Pappas and Hull, alerted that TV was now involved, sent representatives. The meeting was somewhat contentious, according to some who were there, and the quarrels over process suggested that some of the candidates were looking for a way out.
The next day, Temkin said, the Pappas campaign told him Pappas couldn't miss an event in Washington, D.C., the day of the debate and was out. When Hull's camp also said no, Temkin was back to the same five candidates he'd been counting on for a month.
Then Hynes campaign officials, who later said they had promised Temkin only that they would "try to make it work," told Temkin that unless all seven candidates were on the dais, Hynes wouldn't be there.
Facing the prospect of a debate without three of the top five Democrats in the polls, Channel 2 pulled out of the picture. Obama's campaign, expressing the view that Hynes and Hull are its most significant opponents, then also withdrew.
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat," said Temkin of the crazy highs and frustrating lows of trying to wrangle the media and a pack of impulsive candidates into the same room at the same time.
Officially, the great debate is only on hold. "There's still time between now and the primary," Temkin said. "If the candidates can agree, I'll rent the hall and..."