It would seem that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has taken to heart the conventional political wisdom that front-runners have the most to lose in a debate – though, perhaps, two months too late.
Speaking to Bill O'Reilly of Fox News Tuesday, Governor Perry said that his greatest mistake since entering the Republican presidential race in August was his decision to participate in any of the five debates that have happened since.
“These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates," he said. "It’s pretty hard to be able to sit and lay out your ideas and your concepts with a one-minute response. So, you know, if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing one of the [debates], when all they’re interested in is stirring up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people.”
He could well be right. He has gone from strong front-runner to also-ran territory over the arc of the debates.
The RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows that Perry led the GOP field with 31.8 percent support on Sept. 12 – five days after his first debate. That was a 12 percentage point lead on Mitt Romney. Now, he's at 11.6 percent, some 13 points behind both Mr. Romney and Herman Cain.
Yet his admission to Mr. O'Reilly was an extraordinary one. Presidential debates are a staple of American politics, and in some cases, the most unvarnished and substantial look at candidates that voters ever get.
Yes, the Republican field remains a little crowded, making the debates feel more like dog piles at times. But Romney has weathered the attacks. Mr. Cain exhausted his his fruit references to defend his 9-9-9 plan.
Could Perry, if he were to win the nomination, refuse to debate President Obama? If he were elected, could he hide from the media?
Debating is hardly an impractical skill in the West Wing. Just ask Abe Lincoln.
Perhaps even more extraordinary is that his campaign is hinting that he might skip debates in the future. He has only committed to one of the seven debates scheduled before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
Perry has $17 million in his pocket from fundraising last quarter. Ad money, he has. But it's difficult to imagine how staying away from a debate would be viewed as anything other than an attempt at damage limitation. For a candidate who needs to be on offense, that's a potential problem.
Moreover, how much can targeted ads and hand-shaking do to substantially move his numbers? Debates represent invaluable opportunities to reach broad audiences, with CBS, ABC, and PBS picking up coverage of the next series in addition to the three main cable news networks. Which is he going to skip?
He has already committed to the Nov. 9 debate in Michigan. The Nov. 12 debate, broadcast by CBS, is in South Carolina, a state where the Southern governor will likely have to make a strong showing. The Nov. 15 foreign-policy debate in Washington is hosted by the Hertitage Foundation – a leading conservative think tank.
Perhaps the Dec. 1 CNN debate in Arizona? Because after that, it's three straight debates in Iowa ahead of the caucuses – a vote where Perry must lay down a marker if he's to beat Romney for the nomination.
Perry has been selective before. In the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race, incumbent and front-runner Perry refused to participate in any debates because his Democratic opposition, Bill White, refused to release his taxes.
Is this another example of Perry trying to bring a heaping helping of Texas to the national stage?
If so, he could be asking for the ultimate "Texas miracle."