Everyone knows why Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to skip some of the coming Republican presidential debates. He's a lousy debater, and the biggest single factor in his fall from front-runner to back-in-the-pack has been his poor performance in several high-profile debates.
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.
At least a dozen GOP debates are scheduled between Nov. 9 and the Florida primary on Jan. 31. A few more are in the works but not yet confirmed. Given that there will be breaks in the debating for Thanksgiving and Christmas -- nobody expects voters to pay attention then -- that's a lot of debates in very little time.
For example, three debates will be held between Nov. 9 and 15. The first will be a CNBC debate focused on the economy at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Then there will be a CBS News debate at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., followed by a foreign policy debate put on by the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
Without wishing to offend any of the sponsors, it's reasonable to ask whether all those debates, especially the ones in Michigan and Washington, are absolutely essential.
After the Thanksgiving break, there's a CNN debate in Phoenix on Dec. 1. Is that essential? And then there are three debates in Iowa between Dec. 10 and 19.
Of course, it's important to have debates in Iowa, but is it necessary to have three in such a short time? Wouldn't two be fine?
Until a few weeks ago, there seemed to be lots of time for debating. The Iowa caucuses were set for Feb. 6, with the other contests after that. Then Florida upended the Republican schedule, setting its primary for Jan. 31 and forcing the early contests to move to earlier dates. The Iowa caucuses will now be Jan. 3. More than a month of campaign time has been lost; debates that were in the planning stages have been squeezed into a shorter period.
The sheer number of debates raises the question of diminishing returns. The early debates helped introduce the candidates to the Republican primary electorate. Later debates will help voters in critical states make their final decisions. But the next few debates, while they might be the occasion for a major gaffe or gotcha, have little purpose.
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.
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