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.
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.
Perry opened the subject the night of Oct. 25 when he told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that it might have been a mistake for him to take part in the debates. "These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates," Perry said. "So, you know, if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing one of the (debates) when all they are interested in is stirring it up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people ..."
Perry later pledged to take part in at least five more GOP debates. But spokesman Ray Sullivan says Perry will consider others on a case-by-base basis. "The schedule makes it extremely difficult for candidates to do important retail voter-contact campaigning in the early states," Sullivan says.
The strongest case against Perry's fewer-debates position is that the Republican nominee will have to take on Barack Obama in two or three super-high-stakes debates in October 2012. The party needs to know whether its candidate can hold his own. But voters will know that by the end of the primary season anyway. And being a good campaigner is important, too. Fewer debates would let the GOP candidates do more of that.