Rick Perry May Skip Some Debates in the Future

Rick PerryRick Perry may skip some upcoming GOP
presidential debates, sidestepping a campaign staple that hasn’t been
kind to the Texas governor in his first two months on the national
stage. It’s a decision that ultimately could cause other Republicans to
bow out of the more than half-dozen face-offs scheduled between now and
the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.


Perry does plan to
participate in a Nov. 9 debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
– his sixth – but he hasn’t committed to any others beyond that as
political advisers hunker down to determine how best to proceed. He’s
juggling fundraising and retail campaigning with only two months before
the first votes in the Republican nomination fight are cast.

“We
haven’t said no, but we’re looking at each debate,” campaign spokesman
Mark Miner said Thursday. “There are numerous – 15, 16, 17 – debates,
and we’re taking a look at each one and we’re making the appropriate
consideration.”

He said that “while debates are part of the process, they’re just one part.”

Former
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered the Republican candidate to
beat because of his leads in national polls, fundraising and
organization, also has not committed to debating beyond Michigan. His
campaign has made debate commitments on a case-by-case basis depending
on how each fits his schedule and strategy. For instance, he skipped the
leadoff debate in South Carolina in June when the GOP field was still
gelling and few top-tier candidates participated.

For Perry, who is not nearly as well-known as Romney, there’s more to it than time management.

As
he reboots his fledgling campaign, Perry clearly also is trying to
reintroduce himself to the nation on his own terms. After a couple of
recent rocky debate performances hurt his poll standings, he’s returning
to the play-it-safe strategy he successfully employed in running three
times for governor of Texas.

The state’s
longest-serving governor, he never has lost an election and has debated
his rivals only when it couldn’t be avoided. Perry has long conceded
he’s not a strong debater, and he contends that his up-close charisma
and ability to take a more personalized message directly to voters is
the key to his success. His closest advisers have built campaigns around
that approach and their candidate’s ferocious campaign-trail energy.

It’s
unclear whether this approach will work in a national campaign, where
debates provide candidates new to the national stage with a huge dose of
free media as they look to make themselves better known to primary
voters. The stakes are high. Do well, and you could enjoy a burst of
momentum as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann did over the summer. Do
poorly, and you risk falling out of favor as Perry can attest.

This
year, the Republican primary debates have drawn large audiences and
have significantly shaped the contours of the race. Eight debates
already have been held, and nearly a dozen more are scheduled before
January’s end.

Media companies and state
Republican Party leaders schedule them without the campaigns’ consent.
It’s up to the candidates to decide whether they participate.

Perry has made his disdain for the encounters clear.

“These
debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidate,”
he said Tuesday on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel. “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.”

Rival campaigns jumped on Perry.

“You have to go to debates if you want to succeed in the new era,” chided Steve Grubbs, chairman of Herman Cain’s Iowa campaign.

But
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, a former aide to John McCain’s
2008 presidential campaign, said Perry must play to his strength, not
his weakness.

“During those debates, he looks
like the Washington Generals while Mitt Romney is the Harlem
Globetrotters scoring all around him,” O’Connell said. “A lot of people
have written him off as a bad debater already, so you might as well make
up ground like you have during 10 years as Texas governor, and that’s
pressing the flesh, getting to know the people.”

In
the debates so far, Perry has flubbed ready-made attack lines and
rambled through answers. He’s looked unprepared, if not angry and
confused at times. And, in one debate in which Perry’s advisers thought
he had shown improvement, observers tagged him as a bully.

None of that is much of a surprise to people in Texas, who know Perry as a reluctant debater.

He
cruised to re-election last year without ever debating Democratic
challenger Bill White. Perry refused to share a stage with White unless
the former mayor of Houston released his tax return.

White
actually released all but one part of his return, which contained
information about a business partnership that he wasn’t allowed to make
public. Perry seized on that, though, and avoided a debate altogether.

“I
was stunned that he was able to make it the whole way through the 2010
campaign without debating,” said J.D. Gins, who served as field director
for the White campaign. “I think most people saw through it, saw that
he really didn’t want to get up there and defend his record. As we’re
all seeing now, he’s shaky when he is thinking on his feet.”

Perry did debate during last year’s Texas Republican primary race and also during his gubernatorial races in 2002 and 2006.

At
his campaign’s insistence, however, the 2006 debate was held in Dallas
on the eve of the annual Cotton Bowl showdown between Texas and
Oklahoma. It was a Friday night, too, meaning many would-be voters were
distracted by high school football – something of a religion in much of
Texas.

Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.

Source: Will Weissert, The Associated Press

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