Katie Hobbs, left, and Kari Lake
CNN  — 

Kari Lake has proved to be a gladiator in an arena of Donald Trump imitators. And in the final weeks of the Arizona governor’s race, the Republican is driving the narrative as she taunts her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, for refusing to debate her.

The race has taken on outsized importance this year because the governor could once again play a pivotal role in affirming the next occupant of the White House. It is a clash between an unwavering election denier in Lake – who refused to commit to accepting the November election result on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday – and one of the most prominent defenders of the sanctity of the state’s 2020 vote count in Hobbs, who is Arizona’s secretary of state.

But the final phase of the race has become less of a battle of ideas and more of a contrast in high-risk tactics – one that has showcased the enthusiasm within the GOP base for Lake, a former TV anchor, and the low-key vibe of the Hobbs campaign. That’s causing some concern for Democrats in a race that has no clear leader, according to CNN’s recent polling, but in a state – already ground zero for Trump’s efforts to install election denying candidates – where registered GOP voters express stronger motivation to vote than Democrats.

Hobbs has taken a calculated gamble by refusing to appear on stage with Lake – breaking a 20-year debate tradition by major party candidates in Arizona. Her campaign has insisted that there is no point in participating in a forum with Lake that would descend into “childish name calling” and “constant interruptions.”

“I’m not interested in being a part of a Kari Lake spectacle or shouting match and I’m going to keep taking my case directly to the voters,” Hobbs told CNN at a recent phone bank launch.

In a dynamic reminiscent of how Trump torpedoed many of his Republican rivals in 2016 – with endless repetition of nicknames like “low-energy” Jeb Bush and “Lyin’ Ted (Cruz)” – Lake has been relentless in her effort to brand Hobbs as “coward.” Lake campaign volunteers have even formed a traveling troupe of costumed chickens – sometimes accompanied by actual hens in a cage – that pop up outside Hobbs’ events and in front of her office with signs like “Hidin’ Hobbs” and “Katie the Coward.”

Still, while Arizona Democrats do not want to appear critical of their nominee in the final weeks of the race, some voters are questioning the wisdom of allowing Lake to go unchallenged on a debate stage.

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said the Hobbs campaign’s stance on debates is a “mistake.”

“When you’re running to be the chief executive of a state, strength becomes a leading indicator and that’s true in any executive position. So, when you refuse to debate, it can be construed as weakness and fear,” Axelrod said.

“The way you deal with falsehoods is to challenge the person who’s promoting them,” Axelrod added of Lake’s baseless focus on the 2020 election being stolen. “If I were the opponent, I’d want to chase her and force her to account for building her campaign on the basis of a falsehood. But they obviously feel like she’s too much of a personality to challenge – and I think that’s potentially a fatal mistake.”

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs speaks at a news conference calling for abortion rights on October 7, 2022 in Tucson.

And Laurie Roberts, a left-leaning columnist for the Arizona Republic, wrote that Hobbs’ refusal to debate Lake amounts to “a new level of political malpractice.”

“This is two candidates, each asking to govern a state of more than seven million people for the next four years. Voters have a right to see them, side by side,” Roberts wrote.

But Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod said it’s smart for Hobbs to stand down from a debate with Lake. “Hobbs has been strategically engaging in a mix of local and national media, and taking her campaign to communities throughout the state where she’s effectively made her case to voters. Given the candidate she is running again, I think her tack is sound and strategic.”

Hobbs has argued that the debate issue isn’t salient to voters anyway. “I guarantee you that people who are struggling in Arizona right now are not making their decisions over whether or not there was a debate between myself and Kari Lake,” she told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.

But not all her supporters are so sure.

Cindy Ika, a registered Democrat, could hear Lake’s costumed chicken protesters outside a Hobbs phone banking event she was attending last week.

“I wish she would debate,” Ika said. “If you can’t get your voice out because (your opponent) is constantly interrupting – like Trump did with Hillary Clinton (in the 2016 presidential race) –that’s very hard to compete against that. I understand that.”

But she said that kind of on-stage matchup could be helpful in elucidating the choice before voters.

Ika, looking through the glass of Hobbs’ campaign event at the chicken protesters, warned that not directly challenging Lake could impact the small number of undecided voters in Arizona.

“It does send a message.”

‘Call me out on stage’

Kari Lake appears during a "Fight Night" event in Phoenix, on Friday, October 14, 2022.

Showing more message discipline than Trump and media-savvy from her career in television news, Lake has engaged in a series of high-wattage events and attention-grabbing stunts. Last week, she held a “Friday Night Fight Night” in Phoenix in a mock boxing ring with a backdrop of punching bags, weight benches and boxing gloves as she campaigned with a former UFC champion.

At a recent event co-hosted by the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where Lake and Hobbs appeared for back-to-back interviews, the candidates were supposed to wait in their respective holding rooms while their opponent spoke. But Lake staked out a spot in the front row when Hobbs was slated to speak. She then created a commotion in front of the audience when she was asked to leave by telling the moderator she should join him on stage so she could debate Hobbs face to face.

Lake has dismissed Hobbs’ claims that a debate would lead to “pointless distractions” and name-calling as an inadequate justification for not meeting on stage.

“We’re going to discuss the issues. If that’s your excuse, then call me out on stage,” the Republican said during a news conference last week in Phoenix, noting that Hobbs also refused to debate her Democratic opponents during the primary.

“We have far too many issues facing our state right now to have a weak, cowardice candidate win, and then make it to the governor’s mansion.”

But John Graham, a developer and registered Republican who helps lead the Republicans and Independents for Katie Hobbs coalition, predicted that voters will reject what he views as the divisive rhetoric of Lake and the current Arizona Republican Party, which is dominated largely by Trump supporters.

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  • Even though he has some policy disagreements with Hobbs, he is supporting her, he said, because he believes she will govern “responsibly, with a fair hand and be respected.”

    “She’s not a theatrical person, she’s not the huge bubbly personality,” Graham said. “But to me that’s perfectly fine. You get something that’s very calm, and very stable.”

    When asked about a Lake-Hobbs debate, Graham replied: “I don’t see how that debate would end up well for anybody.”

    Don Kinghorn, a 75-year-old Democrat from Sahuarita who is backing the Democrat, said her decision “is a little concerning because I think it makes her look reticent to confront.”

    But he pointed to the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 as evidence that voters might end up with more of a Lake-driven spectacle than an informative exchange of ideas.

    “Look at the last Trump/Clinton debates and how poorly he obeyed the rules,” Kinghorn said. “Kari Lake would be exactly like Trump. Why would you want to put yourself in a position where someone could just not follow the rules of the debate?”

    Katherine Sullivan contributed to this report.