Perry's Choice on Debates: Look Scared or Say More Dumb Things

What's a bigger danger to Rick Perry: that he goes to more primary debates and says stupid stuff, or that he skips the debates and -- the horror -- Mitt Romney calls him a fraidy cat

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What's a bigger danger to Rick Perry: that he goes to more primary debates and says stupid stuff, or that he skips the debates and -- the horror -- Mitt Romney calls him a fraidy cat? The five debates Perry has participated in have not been good for his presidential campaign. And if he does skip the events, he can just recycle the line he used in his gubernatorial race last year when he wouldn't debate Bill White: "It's not about this good ol' fighting Texas Aggie being afraid to [engage] that Harvard boy."

Perry's campaign staff has been floating the possibility of him being a no-show. His communications director Ray Sullivan told CNN Wednesday, "The candidates need to spend time in Iowa doing those town halls and spending a lot more time with the voters, who oftentimes have the best questions and press the candidates the hardest. ... We're taking each of these as they come, examining the schedule and examining the opportunities and the opportunity costs." Perry spokesman Mark Miner told Politico, "And Perry spokesman Mark Miner told Politico's Maggie Haberman: "We said we would do Michigan but the primaries are around the corner and you have to use your time accordingly." Sullivan further explained to the Houston Chronicle's Peggy Fikac:

"There are something like 18 (debates) being planned ... The governor has done five debates. We will do more, and we expect to accomplish our goals and have the governor convey his strong record and ideas in those debates. It is a function of time and energy, not the content of the debates ... I think what the voters need to ask is how many debates is the right number ... There have already been unprecedented numbers for a primary season."
The number of debates this year isn't unprecedented, actually. Yahoo's Dylan Stableford and Chris Moody pointed out earlier this month that "The 2012 debate cycle appears right on schedule -- perhaps even lighter -- when compared to 2008. By this point in 2007, Republican candidates had participated in 10 debates, two more than have been held in 2011. (For Democrats, there had been 13.)" The New York TimesMichael D. Shear observes that four years ago, Republicans held a total of 21 debates, Democrats 26.
Perry himself came closer to explaining the real reason he wanted out of the debates, complaining to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "Actually, these debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates. It pretty hard to be able to sit and lay out your ideas and your concepts with a one minute response." The main candidate torn down, of course, has been Perry himself. The ideas that haven't been clearly articulated in one-minute responses have been his own. NBC News' First Read reports that "Perry's folks believe in the retail campaign strategy; it's a Perry strength, one he's yet to be able to showcase which is why they want off the debate trail." But the risk is, as Shear predicts, that Romney will mock Perry as a chicken. Another risk? In an election in which the debates have been such a huge part of election coverage, Perry's absence will let voters forget about him.
But in his reelection campaign last year, Perry faced few consequences for not debating -- despite an extended "Rick Chicken Perry" campaign by liberals to convince him to do so via protesters in chicken suits, chicken-themed videos, and pro-chicken suit stories in local newspapers. He claimed he couldn't debate White until he released tax returns from the 1990s. He won, though by a slimmer margin than the other Republicans elected statewide in deep-red Texas. Texas Republican strategist Royal Masset predicted the debateless election in June 2010 to the San Antonio Express-News, saying, "I think there's a real probability we won't have a debate. I just don't think Rick sees it in his interest to have one ... [White] is plain-spoken. He is very specific-oriented ... He's kind of our nightmare ... Why give him a chance?" Too bad Perry has already given Romney -- and Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain, and Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum -- that chance.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.