After a series of mediocre debate performances over the past six week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to be signaling that he may not take part in future candidate gatherings.
“There are something like 18 [debates] being planned….. . and given the fact that all the candidates need to spend time with actual voters in primary states, it seems like doing another dozen or 18 debates is not realistic,” Sullivan told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.
(By our count, there are seven debates scheduled between now and the end of the year. That means seven Fix live blogs!)
It’s not clear whether Sullivan (and Perry) are simply lodging a sort of public protest against the growing number of debates or whether the campaign is serious about the possibility of the Texas governor taking a pass.
If it’s the latter, it’s a very bad idea, according to conversations with a handful of unaligned Republican strategists.
“It’s like skipping the third quarter of a football game,” said Steve Schmidt , who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain. “It’s not practical. Plus it’s a stipulation he can’t make an argument and is unprepared on the issues.”
The problem for Perry is that skipping a debate or two (or more) would be cast as making a decision from a position of weakness not strength.
In the abstract, skipping debates to focus more on the voters in early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina isn’t a bad idea.
But, the dominant narrative in the race to date — pushed by his weak debate performances — has been that Perry may not be ready for primetime and that by nominating him the party would be risking what looks to be a very real chance to beat President Obama in 2012.
If Perry doesn’t participate in a series of debates, voters just starting to tune into the race will be greeted with scads of media coverage about whether he is running away from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Not exactly a good introduction to Perry.
And, like it or not, the debates are likely to be major moments in the race going forward. While the viewership isn’t close to “American Idol” levels, the number of eyeballs on any given debate are far higher than Perry could help to attract in a week’s worth of appearances in Iowa or New Hampshire.
In a memo released by Neil Newhouse, the lead pollster for Romney, said that the five debates in September and October drew 20 million viewers; “This is approximately the same number of voters who cast ballots in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries,” wrote Newhouse.
Said one unaffiliated senior party strategist: “This is the biggest audience the guy is going to get, and if he cannot perform in a debate, he shouldn’t be president of the United States.”
Perry’s recent poll drop also complicates the idea of skipping debates. If he was still at the lofty frontrunner heights that he achieved shortly after entering the race in August, he might be able to get away with this tactic. (It’s the equivalent of a “Rose Garden” strategy.)
But, with the latest New York Times/CBS News poll showing Perry at 6 percent and in fifth place nationally he doesn’t enjoy the luxury of picking his spots any more.
One saving grace for Perry could be if Romney or businessman Herman Cain also decide to take a pass on one (or several) of the upcoming debate. That would give him ample cover to make his “too many debates and not enough time with voters” argument.
Of course, it’s hard to see either Romney or Cain going that route.
For Cain, who lacks any serious organization in early voting states yet, the debates are his best chances to get his message in front of as many people as possible.
For Romney, his strongest argument against Perry is electability. And in every debate that both men have participated in, Romney has looked like the more polished candidate and the one who is best equipped to take on President Obama next fall. Given that, it’s hard to imagine Romney purposely giving Perry an out.
It’ll be interesting to see if Perry makes good on his threat to take a pass on upcoming debates. Given the reaction among the Republican political class, it seems like a very bad idea.
(For those who missed the “bad idea jeans” reference, watch this.)