Byron York, echoing the Perry campaign argument, writes that “the next few debates, while they might be the occasion for a major gaffe or gotcha, have little purpose.” In particular, he suggests that the candidates could skip the CNBC debate in Michigan and the AEI/Heritage debate in Washington. He sympathizes with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s desire to bug out of the debates, and urges others to follow. I couldn’t disagree more.
Sure, we’ve had a lot of debates, but they have never been more revelatory and more important in helping voters sift through the contenders. Perry wants out because he can’t hack it. He can take his ball and go home if he chooses, but others would be foolish to follow. In fact, none of the candidates except Perry has voiced interest in passing up any debate.
Newt Gingrich thrives in these settings. Rick Santorum is finally getting visibility. Mitt Romney has used them to distance himself from his less articulate and less steady opponents. There surely is no shortage of material to cover. Perry has yet to defend his economic plan under questioning. Cain did rather poorly last time and has since revised his 9-9-9 plan. There’s still plenty to learn about the candidates. And those with something to say and the ability to say it will want to continue to benefit from massive, free exposure to the voters.
Moreover, the Michigan and AEI debates are the last ones to skip. NBC’s reporter Maria Bartiromo is going to grill the candidates, I am certain, on everything from trade to debt crisis to the Fed. I can imagine her zeroing in on Romney’s aggressive China stance and grilling Perry on his economic plan.
The AEI debate is even more important. We’ve had a tiny amount of discussion about foreign policy so far. This is an entire debate on the subject. Anyone who ducks this one has no business running for commander in chief.
Moreover, the premise of York’s piece — that these candidates would be better off “campaigning” — is puzzling. It depends on how the time is used campaigning. If Perry were doing a series of town halls with a Q&A, there would be a good case that this was valuable candidate access. But if he is just doing “one-on-one campaigning” — shaking hands and moving on — are voters learning all that much about him? And the notion that debates have deprived or will deprive candidates of hands-on time with voters is just wrong. ( “Voters in the early states really do pay close personal attention to candidates, and word gets around if a candidate does well on the stump,” York says. “Of course, for that to happen, the candidate has to actually be on the stump.”)
Rick Santorum has attended every debate and managed to visit 78 Iowa counties. Since she entered the race in June, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has attended 90 events over 47 days in Iowa. There is no shortage of time to press the flesh, and with the rescheduling of the Nevada caucuses to Feb. 4, there will be a long stretch between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries for candidates to glad-hand. (Granted that by then Perry and others may be effectively out of the race.)
Really, the only reason I can think of for Perry to avoid the debates is the obvious one: He’s awful in them and can’t defend his own positions. It’s likely that Romney, Gingrich, Bachmann and Santorum would be happy to see him go; they can criticize him to their heart’s content while making the case that his absence is a concession that he’s not up to defending his views. (National Review’s Jim Geraghty writes in his online newsletter: “Rick Perry might as well concede the race if he doesn’t want to appear in debates anymore. It’s three to five million viewers. You have to visit a lot of diners, fundraisers in hotel ballrooms, and VFW halls to reach that many Republicans at once.”)
In the latest polls, Perry is at 4 percent in New Hampshire and 10 percent in Iowa, so it’s understandable he would panic. But his latest strategy — avoid close examination of his views — will only cement in voters’ minds the serial gaffes for the debates he did attend. Moreover, once again he has taken his eye off the ball of what was supposed to be the centerpiece of his jump-started campaign — his new economic plan. Now the question has become : Why can’t Perry debate his plan?