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."

The adviser said the relentless string of debates so far -- five in six weeks since Perry entered the race -- have taken a lot out of the candidate.

"You're debating every week. It's ridiculous," the adviser said. "You have no idea what that does to a campaign. It's fine when you don't need to spend time in these [early primary] states, but when you do it like he does, it's distracting."

But the best way to look like an alternative to Romney is to stand next to Romney and take him on. With the intense media focus on the debates, if Perry isn't there to fill the role, one of the other candidates will.

"The question becomes, why is he skipping? Why is one debate, one media outlet, more important than the other?" said GOP consultant Keith Appell. "When there's so many candidates and the windows are smaller to get your message out, why would you cut off that opportunity and create a side issue that you have to deal with?"

Most of the reaction to the idea was similarly negative Thursday. "Rick Perry skipping debates? Bad idea jeans," wrote the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "He cannot have one good performance after a series of flubs and decide he is good," wrote RedState's Erick Erickson, adding that if Perry skips the Nov. 15 debate sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, "I think it is game over for him because he'll look both scared and weak."

There are a lot of debates coming up -- three in the space of six days in November, then four in December. After the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, debates are scheduled to be interspersed between the nominating contests, with as many as five taking place as the early states vote in January. But it's hardly an unprecedented amount for a wide-open nominating contest. There were 21 GOP debates during the 2008 primaries, including 11 between the beginning of September and the Iowa caucuses.

But hold on a minute, Perry's defenders say. No one is saying he's going to drop out of the rest of the debates completely. If he debates here and there, he can keep himself in the public eye without exhausting himself.

"The primary debate process is chaos and there are now so many I doubt much if anyone will really care if he takes a pass on a few," McKinnon noted.

Perry's advisers note that he hasn't actually said no to any of the debates -- just dangled the possibility. "We're looking at the other debates and we'll make the appropriate decisions for each one," spokesman Mark Miner said. "Very few campaigns have committed to each and every debate that is on the books."

Romney's campaign wasn't commenting Thursday on whether he would participate in upcoming debates. Santorum, characteristically, went on the attack, accusing Perry of "hiding from the public." Gingrich's campaign said he was committed to all future debates. But Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, allowed for the possibility: "We are getting a debate request a day, so we will have to decline some," he said in an email.

The problem for Perry is that he's done so badly in the debates thus far that if he declines to do many more, no one will believe it's just because he cares so much about stumping in Iowa. As in Texas, where Perry has avoided debates for years, his opponents will seize on the idea that he's chickening out of something he'd rather not face.

"It's like the NFL: Each week there's a game," Rollins said. "You don't get to pick and choose, just like when it comes to the nominee you don't get to say you're not going to debate Obama."

Image credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

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

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