LAS VEGAS — For Gov. Rick Perry, the best news about tonight’s nationally televised debate may be what comes next: fewer nationally televised debates.
As the 2012 nominating contest draws closer, TV ads and press-the-flesh events will dominate the schedule and the airwaves more, and those are areas where Perry, not exactly a debate champion, can play to his strengths. After tonight's debate, there isn’t another big one planned until Nov. 9, and a tentative timeline of upcoming debates indicate they will be more spaced out.
“Debates are a good topic for pundits in Washington,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner, who’s in Las Vegas preparing to hit the post-debate spin room tonight. “But when it comes down to it, people want to hear and see the candidates first hand in these early primary states. That’s where Gov. Perry is at his best.”
Perry also has another big policy speech scheduled for Oct. 25 in South Carolina, a second installment of his plan to spark job creation, officials say. The Perry campaign could use something to focus attention away from his debate performances.
Perry’s first three debates went from mediocre to terrible, contributing to a humbling fall from his brief but commanding lead in the GOP contest. At his fourth, on the campus of Dartmouth College last week in New Hampshire, Perry struggled for airtime and seemed less forceful than in previous debates.
“He’s tried to be assertive, and he’s tried to be submissive, and neither one has worked,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “We’ll see if they come up with a new formula.”
Tonight’s debate, to be broadcast from the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, will likely have a much larger audience than last week’s Bloomberg/Washington Post debate. It will be aired on CNN, and it is jointly sponsored by the network and the Western Republican Leadership Conference.
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper will moderate the debate, and its format will allow members of the audience, all voters from the western United States, to pose questions directly to the candidates, organizers say.
There’s an interesting wrinkle this time, stemming from a controversy over the confusing and potentially chaotic calendar of caucuses and primaries. GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman, struggling in the low single digits in presidential polls, is boycotting the debate because of Nevada’s decision to move up the date of its caucuses to Jan. 14. So there will be seven candidates on stage tonight instead of eight.
Huntsman, hoping to stay in the good graces of the New Hampshire Republican establishment, is one of several candidates vowing not to participate in the January Nevada caucuses.
The calendar drama started in late September when Florida decided to move its crucial primary up to Jan. 31. The early nominating states all jealously covet their role in picking presidents and are competing with each other for the best dates.
Republicans in Nevada, who want to stage the first western state contest, reacted to Florida’s renegade move by scheduling theirs on Jan. 14. The Iowa caucuses, which traditionally begin the presidential delegate-awarding process, are scheduled for Jan. 3. South Carolina set its primary for Jan. 21.
That has left New Hampshire, trying to focus maximum attention on itself, struggling with a decision over when to hold its first-in-the-nation primary. Republican officials there are threatening to move their primary all the way into early December unless Nevada backs down.
As it stands, the Nevada contest could be a high-stakes one for Perry. Most of the major candidates are bypassing the Silver State at this point, potentially leaving Perry to face off with his main rival, Mitt Romney, and with fellow Texan Ron Paul, a Republican congressman who continues to attract a loyal and committed slice of the electorate.
While Perry could use the opportunity to present himself as a mainstream conservative alternative — and not have to share the spotlight with boycotting candidates like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann — he could also get embarrassed here if he comes in third in a three-way race.
Romney won Nevada in 2008 and he has poured resources and time into the state, where followers of his Mormon faith could play a significant role in the outcome, said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
The former Massachusetts governor opened his Nevada headquarters here Monday, a day before the debate.
Damore also said Paul excels in caucus-style contests, which favor organization over advertising, and has made Nevada a major focus on his campaign.
The Texas governor picked up a major endorsement here — from the state’s new GOP governor, Brian Sandoval — and Perry announced key members of his Nevada team earlier this month. Perry also has a post-debate speech scheduled here on Wednesday morning.
But Damore hasn’t seen much of a presence on the ground from the Perry campaign so far.
“In terms of building a grassroots caucus-level organization, that hasn’t happened,” Damore said.