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Can Perry afford to pass on debates?

By Martina Stewart, CNN.com Political Producer
October 28, 2011 -- Updated 0952 GMT (1752 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rick Perry's campaign says the debate schedule is too heavy
  • Commentator says voters want to see if Perry can be aggressive in debates
  • Another commentator notes debate format doesn't give time to put forward ideas

(CNN) -- After a string of disappointing debate performances, the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry is signaling that Perry might be dialing back his participation in several planned televised Republican presidential primary debates.

The new tack raises the question: Can a major candidate with a track record of weak debate performances pass on nationally televised debates?

"I don't think Perry can avoid (debating)," CNN contributor and tea party activist Dana Loesch said, "because the debates are where he has received a lot of his criticism." Loesch added that Perry has raised substantial campaign funds and has rolled out his tax plan and a plan to create more jobs. "(A)nd that's what a lot of people wanted to see. We now want to see how aggressive he can be in these debates and whether or not -- because of his performance and rhetorical skills -- he can turn this into a two-man race" with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But fellow conservative and CNN contributor Will Cain said the prospect of more debating is a "no-win proposition" for the Texas governor.

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"There's a ton of debates. Do we need this many debates?" Cain said Thursday. "And (Perry's) kind of right. When you have a minute to respond to each other, a minute to make a point, you're not really able to put out ideas, policies. That being said, it does ring as an excuse by Rick Perry because he does perform so poorly in these debates."

The Perry camp said the heavy debate schedule is taking Perry away from spending time with voters.

"(T)here have been eight Republican debates so far, five since Gov. Perry got in," spokesman Ray Sullivan said Wednesday. "We certainly respect the process, but when you've got eight or nine candidates and 30 seconds to a minute (to answer a question or provide a rebuttal), it takes valuable time away from campaigning in Iowa as those elections approach."

One of Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination sought to score points off the possibility that Perry might bow out of some debates.

"I thought Texas governors were supposed to be tough," Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said in a statement. "How can Gov. Perry expect anyone to trust he can take on Obama and the Democratic machine when he thinks debating his fellow Republicans is too tough? This just shows he doesn't have what it takes to lead the American people in taking back our country in 2012."

Perry has tried to downplay the importance of debates. After what many saw as a shaky showing at a Florida debate in late September, Perry implied the choice between him and Romney was a choice between "deeds" and "words."

Also after that debate, Perry told Republican activists, "As conservatives, we know that values and visions matter. It's not who is the slickest candidate or who is the smoothest debater that we need to elect. We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for our country."

On Fox News on Tuesday night, Perry was more direct. Asked whether he thought he'd made any mistakes since launching his presidential campaign in mid-August, Perry said, "(T)hese debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates. It's pretty hard to be able to sit and lay out your ideas and your concepts with a one-minute response.

"So, you know, if there was a mistake made it was probably ever doing one of the (debates) when all they are interested in is stirring it up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people."

At this point, the Perry camp says it will be considering participation in future debates individually as they focus on campaigning in the first five states to vote in the GOP contest early next year.

"We're taking each of these as they come," Sullivan said Wednesday, "examining the schedule and examining the opportunities and the opportunity costs. And, again, we recognize we need to be in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada and talking to those voters and giving them a chance to exercise their responsibility to vet the candidates, to have town hall meetings and to talk about the issues that are important to them."

CNN's Peter Hamby and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.

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