Well, this puts Newt Gingrich in a pickle, doesn’t it? Will the Newsmax Donald-Trump-moderated debate now be a head-to-head contest between the increasingly formidable frontrunner and substantive straggler Rick Santorum? Gingrich does love a good one-on-one debate, as his repeated invitations to President Obama to meet him at a Lincoln-Douglas-style event indicate … but how out-of-the-cool-kids-loop does he want to be? Is he popular enough at this point to make the debate OK all by himself? Michele Bachmann could still decide to attend, but, for whatever reason, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry still seem to be the only candidates pundits postulate have a chance against Gingrich (and Perry, just barely … in fact, just because he’s second in the Hot Gas reader poll).

To be sure, it was definitely in Perry’s best interest to decline the debate — and not because it’s to be moderated by a reality TV star. When has a debate ever enhanced Perry’s chances at the presidential nomination? His press crew didn’t say he’ll avoid the stage to avoid embarrassment, though. Like Mitt Romney’s team, Perry’s press people said his calendar is just a little too crowded:

The Texas governor’s campaign said in a statement that Perry has talked to Trump and respects him. But there are two debates scheduled in the next seven days. “We have respectfully declined the invitation for the Dec. 27 debate,” campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan wrote.

Perry instead plans to focus on retail campaigning in Iowa. “Traditional retail campaigning in the days and weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus is the Perry campaign’s top priority,” Sullivan wrote. “In the coming weeks, Governor Perry will be in Iowa almost continually, meeting with real voters, doing town hall meetings and events, and talking American jobs, faith, and overhauling Washington, D.C., to Iowa voters.”

So far, Republicans Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul have said they will not participate. Paul’s campaign said Trump’s participation will contribute to a “circus-like atmosphere,” while a Huntsman spokesman emailed Business Insider that “We look forward to watching Mitt and Newt suck-up to The Donald with a big bowl of popcorn.” Romney, like Perry, said he will focus on hitting the campaign trail. Perry has had weak performances in several past debates.

Again, though, why would Trump moderation be such a travesty? Reince Priebus says it’s his flirtation with an independent run that makes Trump problematic. OK. I really admire Mr. Priebus, so I’ll agree that’s valid. And I certainly understand the objections to Eason Jordan — but, in general, I keep coming back to this: Trump surely couldn’t be any worse than madman Jim Cramer or too-cool-for-his-britches Blitz (although, actually, the one time I met him ever-so-briefly in person, I really liked him!).

Meantime, why haven’t the candidates been merciful to decline debates before this one? As I’ve said before, every single one has served the opposition with attack ad material — and few new candidate views have come out since, say, the fifth debate (Gingrich’s immigration positions, perhaps). I might not understand the particular outrage associated with this particular debate — but I won’t mind if it’s scrapped anyway.