Final pre-Super Tuesday debate falls apart

at 03:01 PM ET, 02/16/2012

Updated at 3:50 p.m.

The March 1 debate in Georgia is crumbling.

Mitt Romney’s campaign said Thursday that he will not take part in debate, the final one before Super Tuesday on March 6. In addition, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is reportedly sitting it out as well, and Rick Santorum’s campaign says he’s likely to skip it too.

CNN, confirming that Romney and Paul won’t participate, now says that it will pull out of the debate.

“Without full participation of all four candidates, CNN will not move forward with the Super Tuesday debate,” CNN said in a statement.

Romney’s campaign got things started by pulling out Thursday afternoon. Within two hours, Paul and CNN had pulled out too.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (Gerald Herbert - AP)
“Gov. Romney will be spending a lot of time campaigning in Georgia and Ohio ahead of Super Tuesday,” spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement. “With eight other states voting on March 6, we will be campaigning in other parts of the country and unable to schedule the CNN Georgia debate. We have participated in 20 debates, including eight from CNN.”

Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley confirmed that his candidate is also likely to not participate.

“This is the time to do events,” Gidley said. “Now is when we need to go out, let people see the vision and meet voters.”

But Newt Gingrich’s campaign says he would be there if there was a debate.

The only major presidential candidate to have skipped a debate thus far is Jon Huntsman, who sat out in Iowa — a state where he wasn’t competing.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) campaign toyed with the idea after some rough debate performances but ultimately stayed in. Romney’s campaign, which has at times lost ground to Newt Gingrich at debates, has made little secret that it considered skipping some as well, citing the fact that there have been nearly two dozen of them.

The debate is in the state Gingrich represented in the U.S. House, but both Romney and Santorum have signaled they will compete there.

At a campaign stop Thursday, Gingrich said that he would still participate in the debate and said that Romney’s decision is regrettable.

“The Romney model is to go to Wall Street and raise huge amounts of money to run negative ads,” Gingrich said. “I understand why having to defend that strategy is not something he’s very happy about.”

There had a been a debate planned for March 5 in California, but it is no longer scheduled.

There is still a debate set for Wednesday in Arizona.

Staff writers Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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