We’ve seen the unseemly parade of Republican presidential candidates trekking to visit Donald Trump, perhaps in search of an endorsement or maybe out of fear he’d attack if they didn’t kiss the ring. But with the exception of Newt Gingrich, whose radar isn’t attuned to spot trouble from a raving egomaniac with eccentric views, virtually all of the Republican field and the party has gotten the message that Trump is bad news.
Remarkably, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, after Gingrich had accepted the debate offer, flatly told the GOP contenders it was a mistake to take part in a Trump-run circus, falsely styled as a legitimate debate. Politico reported:
We appreciate what Mr. Trump has done, but if you’re still talking about potentially running as an independent candidate, I think that’s a problem,” Priebus said on Fox News. “I think that would be malpractice for me as an RNC chairman to not believe that that is an issue.” . . .
“I think that having a successful businessman serving as a moderator has a lot of value. But the issue here is whether the moderator should still be a person who’s still batting around the idea of running as an independent. I think that should give some of these candidates some concern,” he said.
A number of Republican voices have also raised their eyebrows about the debate, including Sen. John McCain and strategist Karl Rove, who recently suggested that Priebus step in and “discourage” the candidates from appearing at the debate.
And sure enough, following Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, both Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry said they wouldn’t be going.
Paul and Huntsman were blunt as to why they turned down the invite, whereas the others were a bit more gracious. A spokesman for Perry declined to voice an opinion on Gingrich’s participation. He told me via e-mail: “Governor Perry just believes spending time talking jobs, fiscal conservatism and faith with actual Iowa voters in the days leading up to the caucus is most important. There are two other debates in the next week, so voters, viewers and pundits who closely watch debates will be well served.”
A Republican strategist and veteran of many presidential elections who hasn’t endorsed any candidate agreed. “Candidates have to do other things,” he said. All the debates, he said, aren’t a good use of their time. “Each one is three days,” he said of the time commitment needed for preparation, travel and media. In particular, he thinks the spectacle of candidates vying for Trump’s attention and approval “makes them look weak.”
Now what about Rick Santorum? He agreed to participate in the debate before the others declined and was essentially given a free pass because he is struggling to get coverage. He brashly attacked his competitors with a statement scoffing at them for trying to ingratiate themselves with Trump but then turning him down on the debate. “Many of my opponents jockeyed to be the first to fly up to New York and use Donald Trump for a photo op and no doubt try and secure an endorsement. But when Donald wants to moderate a debate — they refuse to attend. That’s what’s so wrong with politics today — hypocrisy. At this critical time in our nation’s history, just weeks before Iowans cast this important vote — many of the other candidates want to hide behind TV ads and mail pieces. We plan to be there front and center in person to debate Newt directly, and if it’s just the two of us, we’re fine with it.”
But, of course, there is a difference between giving Trump the position of “impartial” moderator (when he’s not) and taking a private meeting with him.
It still is probably in Santorum’s interest to attend, but what about Gingrich? He’s now going to have to face off against one of the smarter, sharpest-tongued debaters in the field. Plus, as the front-runner, Gingrich will be dinged for lowering himself to play second fiddle to Trump. Hmm. Will he try to get out of it? Will he prevail upon Trump to cancel? Stay tuned.