Rick Perry, whose performance in a series of Republican presidential debates has corresponded with a steep decline in his support in polls, plans to limit participation in future face-offs ahead of early state nominating contests.
The concession by the Texas governor, confirmed by an aide in an e-mail to Bloomberg News today, could benefit former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has taken a lead over his rivals for the Republican nomination in the states slated to hold the first four caucuses and primaries in January.
“I think reality has hit him in the face,” said Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, a visiting scholar in the Department of Government at the University of Texas in Austin. “I think he has realized his strengths and weaknesses. He made the political calculation that more debates are only going to hurt him.”
Perry’s absence from debate stages could spur criticism that he is being timid about confronting his opponents. In Texas, Perry had a history of avoiding some debates with his gubernatorial competitors, DeFrancesco Soto said.
There are three debates scheduled during the first half of November and at least seven more in the works for December and January.
A debate held last week in Las Vegas was the eighth such formal encounter for the Republicans since May 5. Televised on CNN, it attracted 5.5 million viewers, according to the Mediaite website.
Perry’s campaign says he needs to spend more time among voters and less on television. The strategic shift was first reported by CNN last night.
“There have been eight GOP primary debates to date with 16 more scheduled over the next 12 weeks,” said Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director, in today’s e-mail to Bloomberg News. “We need to determine on a case-by-case basis whether and how these fit into our schedule given the pressing need to meet actual voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and other early voting states.”
Romney is leading or virtually tied for the lead in those states, which are likely to hold the first voting in January, according to a CNN and Time magazine survey released yesterday. In the poll, he leads in New Hampshire and Florida and is statistically tied for the top spot with businessman Herman Cain in Iowa and South Carolina.
A memo released by Romney’s campaign last week noted that Perry’s standing with voters in key states had plummeted while Romney’s had steadily risen since the Texan participated in his first debate on Sept. 7.
“Debates matter,” the Oct. 21 report from Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, declared. The document, relying on averages of several public polls, asserted that Perry had fallen from 25 percent support before joining in the debates to 8 percent afterward in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida, while Romney had climbed over the same period from 24 percent to 31 percent.
The debates do exact some political cost for the campaigns, as the candidates are often taken off the road to rest and prepare, cutting into their time for fundraising and meeting voters.
Still, for candidates with lesser campaign funds, they offer free national exposure, something that has benefited Cain in recent weeks.
Sullivan said on CNN that Perry will participate in a debate on Nov. 9 in Michigan. Mark Miner, a Perry spokesman, said each future debate would be considered individually.
“We have not made any decisions,” Miner said in an e-mail. “Each debate will be given appropriate consideration.”
Perry, 61, said earlier this week that his participation in all of the debates since he entered the race on Aug. 13 was a mistake.
“These debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates,” he said on Fox News. “It’s pretty hard to be able to sit and lay out your ideas and your concepts with a one-minute response.”
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment about the prospect that Perry might avoid some debates.
Perry was leading national polls of the Republican race during the first weeks of his candidacy. Since then, his standing in surveys has dropped by as much as 20 percentage points, after debate performances he acknowledged were mediocre and as Cain, a former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, gained ground to vie with Romney for front-runner status.
If Perry is to regain momentum, it most likely will have to start in Iowa, where caucuses begin the nomination voting on Jan. 3.
Perry has the money to take his message directly to voters, as he is starting to do in television advertising in Iowa. He had $15.1 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, more than the $14.7 million that Romney reported.
Romney, 64, has questioned Perry’s ability to lead, most recently in an online video that mocked his challenger’s debate performances. It displayed unflattering close-ups that showed Perry appearing to be irate, uncomfortable and confused.
Perry sought to defuse the debate focus with humor as he spoke to about 1,000 social conservatives at a dinner banquet in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 22.
“We are not called to be perfect,” Perry said. “If any of you have watched my debate performances over the last three or four times, you know I am far from perfect.”