Romney wavering on Florida debates?

posted at 12:50 pm on January 17, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

And here we thought the big question on debate attendance would be whether CNN lets Rick Perry on stage this Thursday.  Byron York reports that Mitt Romney has yet to confirm his presence at any of the scheduled debates in Florida, and the campaign says that’s no accident:

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.”

Given the news this week, I’m not sure a “cruise” analogy is a good choice.  Still, the Romney camp has a point with this argument:

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.”

Bruce McQuain at QandO sympathizes with this complaint:

That said, and considering this was a debate moderated by the GOP friendly Fox network, where in the world were the questions about the economy and the European crisis?  Where were the queries about jobs and how to go about creating them?

Instead we got silly race baiting questions from Juan Williams (which, thankfully, were turned on him to the point that the crowd gave Newt Gingrich a standing O for his answer to one of them), questions about tax returns and other ancillary topics that really didn’t address the main problem of our time.

Certainly, if you watched Twitter during the debate, people had fun scoring the punches and the hits, the “dodges” and the answers, but in the big primary scheme of things, does any of that matter?   If polls are to be believed, Romney is comfortably ahead in both South Carolina and Florida.

I’m personally tired of the debates.  For the most part they’ve delivered more entertainment than information. They’ve devolved into scorekeeping about who got the best shot in on Romney.  This is something like the 15th Republican debate and we’re no more enlightened about the serious topics we should be addressing than we were after the 1st.

We have two separate questions on the table, really.  Bruce is addressing a question I’ve raised throughout this process, which is the absurd format of the media debates.  The GOP should have put an end to this format months ago and insisted on a format that would allow for reasoned, robust explanations of policy rather than sound-bite gotchas.  But it’s not just the media’s fault, either.   Since I was feeling under the weather yesterday (and still do a bit today), I took a break from watching Twitter in last night’s debate to focus more on the full answers in the debate, and it was a bit of a relief to not see the gotcha moments amplified and repeated ad infinitum, even if the candidates were still trying to deliver them.

Besides, the debate actually improved last night in one key aspect.  Since there were fewer people on stage, the debate allowed for longer answers.  The candidates ignored the time limits anyway in several instances, Romney included, which made it more like a debate than a game show, at least at times.

The second question is whether to continue holding them, and that is going to be out of Romney’s hands.  He might not like getting beat up on stage, but at least he’s there to defend himself.  The media will cover the debates whether Romney is there or not, so the only way he could successfully shut down the debates is if he gets the other Republican candidates to also withdraw.  They’re practically on life support as it is, so they are certainly not going to pass up an opportunity for national and state-wide coverage in Florida for free. If they show up, Romney has to participate as well, if for no other reason than to keep playing defense and push back a little himself.

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