Rick Perry says he may skip this week’s Republican presidential debate to deal with his home state of Texas’ wildfires. Why hasn’t he been doing that for the past six months?
Wildfires have been raging in Texas for six months. While the state’s governor Rick Perry spent the spring praying for rain, he has spent the past two months traveling the country, shoring up support for his presidential bid, which he announced a mere three weeks ago.
He rapidly became a front runner, largely because he hasn’t had to tackle any of his opponents head on. And as the campaign heats up, however, it’s looking more and more like Perry wants to keep it that way.
“That’s a fluid situation at the moment,” Perry said when asked about whether he’ll attend the face-off. “We’re going to be taking care of the folks here [in Texas].”
While surely Perry cares about the people in his state, he has over the past few months exhibited a tendency to ignore them when it suits his purposes, ie: his campaign’s launch. Now that he’s in the thick of the White House race, however, Perry’s suddenly keen on staying on the homestead.
That could be because Perry’s not the best debater.
Perry may be the longest-serving governor in Texas history, but voters there are largely unaccustomed to seeing him go head-to-head on stage with his rivals. He’s done it just four times in the decade that he’s served as governor—and skipped debates entirely against his last general election opponent in 2010.
A close viewing of Perry’s debates — one each in 2002 and 2006, and two in the GOP primary in 2010 — and interviews with some of his past rivals reveal a candidate who is unlikely to be remembered as a great debater, but rarely makes a mistake and almost always manages to win by not losing.
In other words, Perry’s deliberative skills rest solely on his steadfastness and stubbornness, not his ability to think on his feet. Could it be that he’s trying to avoid a head-to-head conversation with his opponents — and potential humiliation?
This could be a winning strategy for Perry, but only in the short-term. By staying out of the debate, Perry can keep his outsider status, above and beyond the crop of candidates. But, this strategy could also hurt him down the road.
First, a refusal to participate in the debate could signal to Republicans that Perry lacks confidence and ability in that arena, an arena the Democratic president dominates.
Second, Perry is going to have to debate at some point, and by not practicing now, so early in the race, the governor faces the possibility of being off his game when the time comes to actually square off against his opponents.
Clearly Perry wants to highlight his executive role as governor — as he told CBS when asked about the wildfire, “I’ve got a great team of people to work with. That’s one of the things I’ve been blessed with for 10 years.” But at some point he’s going to have to start playing a new role, that of presidential candidate, and he’s going to have to master all the stunts that come with the job.
Update: Perry’s camp now says the governor will indeed attend the debate.