By and large, debates aren’t a huge deal for candidates in a presidential primary. Because most Americans don’t watch them, their relevance is limited to primary voters and other party actors, and even then, an acceptable candidate doesn’t need to have good debate skills – middling skills are okay, provided candidates run an otherwise strong campaign.
Texas Governor Rick Perry might be the exception that proves the rule. His campaign has not been bad, but his debate performances have been terrible. Even at his best, he is a disaster, flubbing basic facts, botching attacks on his competitors, and chastising the audience for disagreement. Perry’s debate skills are so bad that they’ve actually taken a toll on his campaign. Two months ago, Perry was the frontrunner in the Republican nomination contest. Today, he’s at the bottom of the pack, trailing with just 6 percent support from GOP voters.
With that in mind, it’s not a surprise to learn that his campaign is rethinking its choice to have Perry participate in each debate:
“I think all the campaigns are expressing frustration right now,” Miner told POLITICO. “We said we would do Michigan but the primaries are around the corner and you have to use your time accordingly.”
Given the extent to which Perry's harmed himself with bad debate performances, this isn’t such a bad idea. But he risks pushing GOP elites further from his presidential bid, as he affirms their (likely) view that he would crash in a debate with President Obama. On the other hand, if Perry could turn in one good performance—and harm Mitt Romney in the process—he would do a lot for his nomination prospects. Continued participation might destroy his candidacy, but it could be the thing that saves him too.