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Rick Perry: Afraid to Debate?

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Let's put this in terms that Rick Perry can understand: When you show up for the rodeo, you've got to ride the bull.

The Texas governor has indicated that he may opt out of some future Republican primary debates, complaining that the formats are too restrictive to permit a thorough discussion of the issues and too pugilistic to do the candidates any good. But the governor doth protest too much. Debating is an inevitable part of what modern presidential contenders are called upon to do. Any unwillingness to accept this requirement smacks of cowardice.

Without doubt the five debates in which he has taken part have been disastrous for Rick Perry. His best debate was probably his first, when he projected an air of amused detachment that made him the most interesting character on the stage. But since that introduction, Perry's devil-may-care attitude has degenerated into an endless loop of mangled words, bungled punch lines, and muddled messages. He has come to hate debating, and it all too clearly shows.

The governor's handlers assert that the excessive number of debates this cycle has created a relentless pace that gets in the way of direct voter contact. This is a longstanding complaint among presidential candidates, and it carries a certain validity. But the Perry campaign has to realize that in our electronic age the campaign trail pretty much begins and ends in front of the lens of a camera. Instead of turning his back on this reality, the candidate ought to buck up and put everything he's got into making himself a better debater.

Televised debates are unlike any other form of campaign performance. Debating is a game with its own rules and challenges, and no participant can expect to sashay into the arena and instinctively know how to operate, as Perry has attempted to do. Good debaters must study the issues, identify their opponents' strengths and weaknesses, distill their policy ideas into pithy sound bites, and learn how to deploy combative formats and 60-second response times to their advantage. Bill Clinton, a master of the art, says that debating made him a better candidate because it forced him to refine his political positions and articulate them in a way voters could readily understand.

Perry ignores at his peril a fundamental fact of contemporary political life: the public likes debates. This is the case not only in the United States, but also in the 75 or so other countries around the world in which these exercises have unfolded before enormous audiences. True to form, this year's Republican primary debates have generated consistently high ratings. As vehicles of voter education, they are hardly perfect, but they do provide millions of citizens with valuable insight into the would-be nominees, at both the human and policy levels. One thing Republican voters are evaluating this year is which of the candidates is best positioned to take on Barack Obama in next fall's general election debates. If Perry ducks future joint appearances, he is basically conceding that he is not the man for that particular job.

Reluctance to take part in debates has been a hallmark of Rick Perry's career in public service, just as it was with George W. Bush before him. As a gubernatorial candidate Perry conjured up all sorts of excuses for not going face to face with his rivals, and while that strategy may have succeeded on the limited chessboard of Texas politics, it doesn't work in the real world. Voters aren't stupid: if Perry starts sitting out debates, they won't think it's because sixty seconds is too short a response time.

Rather than run away like a frightened schoolgirl, Perry needs to view the debates as a gift, a launch pad from which to reignite his faltering campaign. He would have to work extremely hard to get up to speed, and the results may not always be pretty. But he holds an edge that has boosted many a previous debater: expectations are so low that any slight improvement will be read as a triumph.

When Rick Perry tossed his ten-gallon hat into the ring, he was telling Americans that he has what it takes to withstand the rigors of the long, arduous, oftentimes humiliating process of running for president. If he refuses to debate, Perry will be signaling an altogether different message: that he was never a rodeo cowboy in the first place.

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