It's never a good idea for a presidential candidate to show weakness or lack of confidence. But that's just what Texas Gov. Rick Perry is doing as he raises the prospect of skipping some Republican debates over the next couple of months. Seven are already scheduled between now and the Iowa caucuses, which are tentatively scheduled for January 3.
Perry's arguments have some merit. He says the debates generate too much conflict and petty squabbling, and don't allow for a serious discussion of the issues. "These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates," he told Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. "It's pretty hard to be able to sit and lay out your ideas and your concepts with a one-minute response." The trouble is that Perry has been as guilty as anyone of generating conflict, squabbling, and tearing down the opposition because he seems to thoroughly relish attacking his rivals, especially former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
But the real reason for Perry's backing off the debates is that he performs poorly in that format. That's a big reason why he has faded in the polls.
His opponents are jumping on him for suggesting that he will skip some debates. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says Perry will "look pretty silly" if he fails to show up, since so many Republicans will be watching and the first round of nominating caucuses and primaries in January is approaching fast. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania says he would never pass up a debate because voters deserve to watch the candidates explain their views and handle high-pressure situations.
The debates have been driving the GOP presidential contest so far, propelling some candidates forward and knocking some candidates, including the sometimes tongue-tied Perry, backwards. Many Republicans view the encounters as auditions for the role of taking on President Obama, a champion debater, in the general election. For Perry not to participate would deprive him of attention and make him look scared and petulant when he needs to look tough and mature.
Perry needs to improve his performance, not avoid the game. Skipping the debates would be folly.