No Easy Way Out of Debates for Rick Perry

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If he skips some of the upcoming GOP debates, the Texas governor will reinforce the idea he's not ready for prime time

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Can Rick Perry afford to skip some of the upcoming Republican debates?

The Texas governor is in a bind: If he hopes to win back conservative votes, he's got to get their attention first. But so far, most of the attention he's gotten from the debates has been the negative kind.

And so his campaign sent up a trial balloon, telling reporters over the last couple days that while Perry was committed to the next debate, scheduled for Nov. 9 in Michigan, after that, all bets were off.

Perry's team might have been hoping other candidates would help him stage a rebellion against the oppressive, constant spate of debates. But that didn't happen. Instead, they got another news cycle spent reminding the public how terrible Perry has been at the debates so far -- so terrible, it seems, that he might just quit trying.

"It makes him look like he's not ready to be president," said GOP consultant Ed Rollins, the former campaign manager for Rep. Michele Bachmann. "Nobody likes to debate. It's hard work. It's not a perfect environment for any candidate. But this guy's not a front -runner anymore."

Perry's slide in the polls -- from insta-front-runner when he first announced his candidacy in mid-August to single digits today -- can be largely attributed to his stumbling debate performances. But if debates brought Perry down, only debates can bring him back up, Rollins argued.

"The impression that people have formed is that he's not very smart and not very good, especially at debates," he said. "He's got to turn that around."

The problem for Perry is that no other candidate has any incentive to skip any of the debates. Mitt Romney has generally fended off all comers and appeared deft and confident, though Perry managed to rattle him last week in Las Vegas.

"The way things have gone so far, Romney would probably be happy to debate every night from now until Iowa," said Texas-based strategist Mark McKinnon. "But that's in part because he's not a great retail candidate."

Herman Cain is a national sensation thanks almost entirely to the positive impression he makes in debates and other mass forums. Newt Gingrich, who, like Cain, lacks a major campaign infrastructure, has ridden the debates to new relevance. Lower-tier candidates like Rick Santorum and Bachmann don't have the money to get their message out to large numbers of people any other way. Their only hope is the kind of debate moment that catches people's attention and gets rehashed for days on cable.

Jon Huntsman did skip a debate, trying to score points in New Hampshire by boycotting Nevada. Ron Paul's campaign has money and a distinctive message -- he might do just as well whether he debates or not. But for the most part, the candidates have recognized that debates' upside -- exposure -- outweighs their downside -- unpredictability. Lesser candidates like Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer and Fred Karger have been shouting themselves hoarse trying to get on that stage, to little avail.

Perry's team is anxious to reclaim the Texas governor's position as the chief antagonist to a weak front-runner, Romney. With clumsy but scathing attacks in last week's debate, Perry began to plant that seed. This week, his campaign has brought on reinforcements in the form of a new slate of national advisers. He's been rolling out new policy platforms and started airing ads in Iowa.

"The good news for us is that people aren't going to Romney, they're going to someone else" as Perry has deflated, said a top Perry adviser. "What we started in Nevada was to get people to start seeing this as a two-person race again."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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