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After poor debates, Perry may skip some in future

By Will Weissert
Associated Press / October 27, 2011

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AUSTIN, Texas—Rick Perry may skip some upcoming GOP presidential debates, sidestepping a campaign staple that hasn't been kind to the Texas governor in his first two months on the national stage. It's a decision that ultimately could cause other Republicans to bow out of the more than half-dozen face-offs scheduled between now and the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

Perry does plan to participate in a Nov. 9 debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. -- his sixth -- but he hasn't committed to any others beyond that as political advisers hunker down to determine how best to proceed. He's juggling fundraising and retail campaigning with only two months before the first votes in the Republican nomination fight are cast.

"We haven't said no, but we're looking at each debate," campaign spokesman Mark Miner said Thursday. "There are numerous -- 15, 16, 17 -- debates, and we're taking a look at each one and we're making the appropriate consideration."

He said that "while debates are part of the process, they're just one part."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered the Republican candidate to beat because of his leads in national polls, fundraising and organization, also has not committed to debating beyond Michigan. His campaign has made debate commitments on a case-by-case basis depending on how each fits his schedule and strategy. For instance, he skipped the leadoff debate in South Carolina in June when the GOP field was still gelling and few top-tier candidates participated.

For Perry, who is not nearly as well-known as Romney, there's more to it than time management.

As he reboots his fledgling campaign, Perry clearly also is trying to reintroduce himself to the nation on his own terms. After a couple of recent rocky debate performances hurt his poll standings, he's returning to the play-it-safe strategy he successfully employed in running three times for governor of Texas.

The state's longest-serving governor, he never has lost an election and has debated his rivals only when it couldn't be avoided. Perry has long conceded he's not a strong debater, and he contends that his up-close charisma and ability to take a more personalized message directly to voters is the key to his success. His closest advisers have built campaigns around that approach and their candidate's ferocious campaign-trail energy.

It's unclear whether this approach will work in a national campaign, where debates provide candidates new to the national stage with a huge dose of free media as they look to make themselves better known to primary voters. The stakes are high. Do well, and you could enjoy a burst of momentum as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann did over the summer. Do poorly, and you risk falling out of favor as Perry can attest.

This year, the Republican primary debates have drawn large audiences and have significantly shaped the contours of the race. Eight debates already have been held, and nearly a dozen more are scheduled before January's end.

Media companies and state Republican Party leaders schedule them without the campaigns' consent. It's up to the candidates to decide whether they participate.

Perry has made his disdain for the encounters clear.

"These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidate," he said Tuesday on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel. "So, you know, if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing one of the (debates) when all they're interested in is stirring up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people."

Rival campaigns jumped on Perry.

"You have to go to debates if you want to succeed in the new era," chided Steve Grubbs, chairman of Herman Cain's Iowa campaign.

But Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, a former aide to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said Perry must play to his strength, not his weakness.

"During those debates, he looks like the Washington Generals while Mitt Romney is the Harlem Globetrotters scoring all around him," O'Connell said. "A lot of people have written him off as a bad debater already, so you might as well make up ground like you have during 10 years as Texas governor, and that's pressing the flesh, getting to know the people."

In the debates so far, Perry has flubbed ready-made attack lines and rambled through answers. He's looked unprepared, if not angry and confused at times. And, in one debate in which Perry's advisers thought he had shown improvement, observers tagged him as a bully.

None of that is much of a surprise to people in Texas, who know Perry as a reluctant debater.

He cruised to re-election last year without ever debating Democratic challenger Bill White. Perry refused to share a stage with White unless the former mayor of Houston released his tax return.

White actually released all but one part of his return, which contained information about a business partnership that he wasn't allowed to make public. Perry seized on that, though, and avoided a debate altogether.

"I was stunned that he was able to make it the whole way through the 2010 campaign without debating," said J.D. Gins, who served as field director for the White campaign. "I think most people saw through it, saw that he really didn't want to get up there and defend his record. As we're all seeing now, he's shaky when he is thinking on his feet."

Perry did debate during last year's Texas Republican primary race and also during his gubernatorial races in 2002 and 2006.

At his campaign's insistence, however, the 2006 debate was held in Dallas on the eve of the annual Cotton Bowl showdown between Texas and Oklahoma. It was a Friday night, too, meaning many would-be voters were distracted by high school football -- something of a religion in much of Texas.

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Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.