Byron York has the scoop:
After a debate in which Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney faced attacks from all sides, the Romney campaign says it has not yet accepted invitations to participate in two high-profile debates leading up to the January 31 Florida primary, and a key Romney adviser is expressing fatigue and frustration over what he sees as a never-ending series of GOP debates. "There are too many of these," Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said after Monday night's Fox News debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. "We have to bring some order to it. We haven't accepted Florida…It's kind of like a cruise that's gone on too long."
Romney will participate in the next South Carolina debate, Thursday night in Charleston. Asked by email about the candidate's debate schedule after that, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said, "I have no announcements to make on debates at this time." As part of his complaint against the current debate schedule, Stevens expressed lingering irritation at the January 7 ABC News debate in New Hampshire, in which Romney faced a long a tendentious series of questions about contraception. ("It was such a lousy debate," Stevens said.) More generally, Stevens suggested that in the long course of the campaign, this year's key issues have been exhausted. "We're down to the most obscure questions," he said. "When more than ten debates mention Chilean models, and it's not a fashion show, then something's wrong."
Having attended a great many of these functions (Thursday's event on CNN will be the 17th debate of the cycle), I whole-heartedly agree with Stevens' concerns. Why Republicans have agreed to subject themselves to one MSM-driven inquisition after another is beyond me, and it's true that most big issues have already been addressed and re-addressed. Except for the fast & furious scandal, natch. That being said, if Romney declines to participate in Florida's scheduled debates, he runs a number of significant risks: (1) Appearing over-confident, as if he's already the presumptive nominee. (2) Seeming like he's avoiding uncomfortable subjects, such as questions about his time at Bain and his tax returns that arose last night. (3) Handing his rivals several nationally-televised opportunities to bludgeon him in his absence. One can't defend oneself if one doesn't show up.
The only way Romney could safely enforce a shaving down of the preposterous debate calendar is to convince his opponents to enter a joint agreement to that end. Good luck with that. Frontrunners always have an incentive to avoid debates because the status quo favors them. Rick Perry, for instance, refused to debate his general election opponent in Texas at all in 2010. Underdogs typically clamor for more debates, hoping for a glut of opportunities to trip up the candidate they're chasing. Can you imagine Newt Gingrich aceding to a hypothetical request for fewer forums -- the format in which he thrives? No chance.
Contra many of his supporters' belief, Romney has not yet locked down prohibitive frontrunner status. Sure, some brand new numbers in South Carolina look promising for Team Mitt, but those surveys were taken before last night's debate -- in which Gingrich and Santorum performed very well. The polls that come out tomorrow and Thursday will be more telling. Meanwhile, Romney is still running strong in Florida, and is seeking to shore up his support by blanketing the state with this television ad (which debuted in South Carolina):
It might all be for naught, however. Nancy Pelosi has pronounced the former Massachusetts governor unelectable, so he might as well give up now. Indeed, recent history demonstrates that Pelosi is a veritable nostradamus, so let's just pack it in. Sorry, guys.
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