Rick Perry has introduced a new idea to the political world this week with his insistence that he might be too busy campaigning to enter future presidential debates.
It is an interesting notion. There are, after all, seven debates to be crowbarred into a six-week period between Nov. 9 and Dec. 19.
Are they all necessary? Will we tire of hearing Herman Cain compare his 9-9-9 plan to various fruits. Will he bring cumquats into the argument?
Perhaps Mr. Perry is right. If he is to win the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses – a vote that could be crucial, and which notoriously requires heavy grass-roots efforts – why should he be in Washington debating foreign policy on Nov. 15 instead of eating hash browns with veterans at a Des Moines diner, for example?
On the campaign trail, the Perry team can control its candidate’s image more effectively – showcasing him in settings where he is far more engaging than on the debate stage.
But it is a decision that could change the entire dynamic of the Republican debates – at significant risk to Perry himself.
The conventional political wisdom on debates is pretty clear: They can only hurt – not help – the front-runner. In other words, for trailing candidates, they are perhaps the biggest lever for changing the status quo.
One zinger. One slipup. One allegation that sticks, and the front-runner could find himself falling back to the pack.
Take Perry himself.
His poll numbers have collapsed – from 32 to 12 percent, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls – in large part because of his debate performances. In his first debate, he joked that he felt like a piñata.
But Perry is no longer a front-runner, and the same dynamic can now work in his favor – as it has for Mr. Cain. To avoid debates is to forgo what could be one of his greatest weapons.
It only makes sense from a strategic standpoint if the Perry campaign holds little hope for improvement in the debates.
And if that's true, then Perry could create a domino effect.
The polls say that Cain and Mitt Romney are neck-and-neck for front-runner status. But Mr. Romney clearly sees Perry as the greater threat. At the debate following Cain's huge leap in the polls, the dominant storyline was Romney and Perry going at each other as though they were on Animal Planet. All that was missing was the wildebeest carcass.
Perry has more money, more political experience, more seasoned political advisers, and a more impressive grass-roots infrastructure.
In short, by every political measure except polling, Perry remains the Republicans’ No. 2 – at least for now.
If Perry is going to start skipping debates, then, why should Romney show up and be the piñata? If Romney thinks Cain is not a serious threat, why should he show up and risk being tripped up by him?
The answer: He might not.
Romney, like Perry, has not committed to any upcoming debate except the next one – in Michigan Nov. 9. The result could be Republican debates shorn of two of their most important figures even as the Iowa caucuses approach.
Would Cain gain by comparison as the only “front-runner” bold enough to show? Or would the debates become a sideshow?
The Republican presidential race is fast on track to become an oddity.
The presumptive nominee, Romney (the one man who scares the White house) can’t push his poll numbers over 25 percent because the tea party insurgency driving the political right rejects the former Massachusetts governor as a RINO (Republican In Name Only)
Romney’s main challenger, Cain, is a complete political outlier, according to Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog – a candidate whose polling strength seems impossible to explain by normal political calculations.
And Perry, the man most often anointed as Romney’s real competition, is refusing even to debate him despite dreadful polling numbers.
All signs point to a very peculiar ride ahead.