To debate or not to debate? That is the question Rick Perry and his campaign staff wrestled with last week as the Texas governor floated the possibility of skipping the more-than-a-dozen remaining GOP presidential primary debates.
Perry, who struggled through his first five debate performances, would be the first former front-runner in recent memory to ditch the primary debate stage.
“It has happened occasionally where a candidate didn’t turn up for particular reason, but this idea of deliberately avoiding [debates] for a stretch, that’s an unprecedented move, I think,” said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston who researches political debates.
Schroeder said George W. Bush is the only top-tier candidate that sat out multiple debates during the primary season. The other Texas governor-turned- presidential candidate opted out of the first three GOP primary debates after announcing his candidacy and was widely criticized for it.
But after eventually taking to the stage in December, Bush had perfect attendance at the 10 remaining debates.
This year, though, there are significantly more debates scheduled, with four already set to take place in the month of November.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said the sheer number of debates on the calendar this primary season could make it “particularly tough” for candidates to balance debate appearances with the on-the-ground campaigning that is vital in early primary states.
“The electorate expects the candidates to be there going door-to-door, having town hall meetings,” Fahrenkopf said. “With this extensive debate schedule, debates can interfere with the normal campaigning that takes place in primaries.”
But so far, Perry has been the only candidate to shy away from the full schedule – a fact his GOP rivals have been quick to criticize him over.
“I’d never skip a debate,” Republican contender Rick Santorum said. “I’d never skip the opportunity to let the American public know what I think about these issues.”
Newt Gingrich said it would be an “enormous mistake” if Perry chose to skip the debates.
“I think that, frankly, he’d look pretty silly,” Gingrich said.
Gerhard Peters, the co-director of American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara, said rather than shy away from the nationally televised events, Perry needs to push through them. After all, they are virtually unavoidable in a general election.
“It’s like a baseball player saying, ‘I didn’t pitch well in that last game so I’m not going to pitch tonight,’” Peters said. “You’ll never be able to redeem yourself.”
But Perry may have more to lose from botching another performance than from not showing up at all, said John Woolley, a professor of political science and the other co-director of the American Presidency Project.
“For Perry, it’s a balance of risks,” Woolley said. “And at the moment, probably, the bigger risk is him being in the debate because he can’t get his lines right.”
Until Perry solidifies his positions and his defense of those positions and learns to be more disciplined about his message, Woolley said, he should look to different avenues for winning over voters.
“It’s pretty bad for him and he’s got to do something different, because what he’s been doing isn’t working,” he said. “If [you're] consistently shooting yourself in the foot, this is not your forum and you need to find a different venue.”
That venue may be advertising. According to the latest campaign finance reports, the Texas governor has about $15 million at his disposal. Mitt Romney is the only other candidate that comes close to having that kind of cash.
If the Texas governor can use the millions in his war chest to effectively advertise and maintain a media presence, Woolley said, his campaign may not suffer significantly from debate absences.
“He’s got to be able to have a period of time in which he gets clearer about what his positions are that he wants to defend and is a little more disciplined about his message,” Woolley said. “I don’t think he can do that in the near-term debating.”