The Campaign Spot

Like It or Not, Debating Is Part of Running for President

The final Morning Jolt of the week focuses heavily on the possibility of one GOP candidate skipping some of the upcoming debates . . .

Don’t Skip, Rick!

Whether you like the debates or not, chances are you’ve watched at least one of them, seen highlights, read the transcript, or otherwise seen coverage of them. (Exhibit A: You’re reading this newsletter.) We can complain about the moderators, the questions, the topics discussed and the topics ignored, time limits on answers, bells, whistles, commercial breaks, audience applause, and everything else. But they are the one time every couple of weeks that every political junkie in the country focuses their attention in one place and gives the Republican presidential candidates a chance to make the sale.

(Unless your name is Thad McCotter.)

It’s inevitable that every candidate is going to have at least one off night during their campaign, particularly with our new system of four hundred and twenty three official and nationally televised debates before the Iowa caucuses. (I’m exaggerating; eight so far, six to go before Iowans vote.) But that’s okay. Candidates have survived bad debate performances. But . . .

This is all a way of laying out why Rick Perry might as well concede the race if he doesn’t want to appear in debates anymore. It’s three to five million viewers. You have to visit a lot of diners, fundraisers in hotel ballrooms and VFW halls to reach that many Republicans at once.

At Legal Insurrection, William Jacobson agrees with me: “Whether Rick Perry ends up showing up at the debates or not, this sends precisely the wrong signal. This is not May or June. If you want the nomination, you show up to debates in November and December, without hesitation.”

There’s a wide variety of responses at Ricochet, but this one from Stuart Creque stung a bit: “I like Perry and could become a Perry supporter, but this is a terrible move. We want to select a President who rises to challenges and finds the strength, the determination and the solutions to overcome them, not a President who gives the impression (deserved or not) that if he finds something too challenging, he’ll walk away from it and complain that it’s unfair. I’d argue that we already have that kind of whiner in the White House, and Perry risks being perceived as that kind of whiner if he can’t cowboy up and learn how to handle a debate — even if it is unfair and skewed in favor of pyrotechnic intramural assaults.”

Matt Lewis offers seven reasons why the move might be a good one for Perry, highest among them, “Debates aren’t targeted. A small percentage of the people watching a given debate on TV are likely, persuadable, and eligible voters who live in the early states. If someone who is already 100 percent committed to, say, Herman Cain watches a debate and Perry performs well, it doesn’t help him. If someone who is a Democrat living in Maryland watches a debate and Perry performs well, it doesn’t help. But when Perry is campaigning in Iowa, he can be pretty sure that he is reaching an audience of voters that might actually help him win. (Granted, the people in the debate hall are typically from early states, but they represent a small percentage of viewers.)”

The problem here is that at some point, this field is going to get winnowed down, and some folks are going to find their favorite candidate not among the available options anymore. Perry has the financial resources to be one of the last ones standing. Presuming, hypothetically, that Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman are among those knocked out first, wouldn’t Perry want to have done his best to look his best to their supporters? Those folks who are committed to Cain or Bachmann or whoever may find their options down to Perry and Romney. Wouldn’t the Texas Governor want to take every opportunity to become the second choice of those committed Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich supporters?

If he skips, isn’t it clear that Perry doesn’t want to take every opportunity to make his pitch to everyone?

For an alternative view, Byron thinks Perry has a point: “That said, Perry has a point when he suggests there are just too many debates scheduled in the rapidly dwindling number of days before voters go to the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other key primary states . . . What would the candidates do if they weren’t debating so much? They’d campaign more. That’s obviously what Perry wants to do. Compare his weak performance on the debate stage with his mastery of hands-on, one-on-one campaigning, and it’s easy to understand why. But fewer debates would probably benefit the other candidates, too. Voters in the early states really do pay close personal attention to candidates, and word gets around if a candidate does well on the stump. Of course, for that to happen, the candidate has to actually be on the stump.”