For those who have wondered what would derail Mitt Romney, this may be it. RealClearPolitics is reporting that the Romney campaign declined to debate former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in a one-on-one “Lincoln-Douglas style” debate. This is simply ridiculous. If the former Massachusetts Governor had confidence in his message, this sort of opportunity would be just the sort of event he could use, not only to knock off Newt as the front-runner, but also to demonstrate his ability to go head-to-head with one of the more agile minds in politics. One must wonder if the Romney camp isn’t now terrified of Newt. Romney’s strategy has been to wait for others to kill themselves off, and there’s no doubt that his campaign is hoping that Gingrich will somehow do the same, but there’s an unseemly element of cowardice in play here. Romney’s crew is running scared, and this refusal is a sign of panic over at Mitt Central. If Mitt wants to show his ability to win a debate against Barack Obama, he’d better be able to hold his own with Newt, but this refusal suggests he’s running away, and that’s something we can’t permit in whomever we choose to go up against Barack Obama.
This highlights what has been Mitt Romney’s problem in this entire primary campaign season, as he’s avoided situations that force him to square up to other competitors in any venue that wouldn’t be favorable to him. This entire show with six or more candidates arrayed across a stage is designed to help Mitt. He’s fine when he is able to get away with short answers and seek the refuge of the time-keeper, but the truth is that Mitt gives one the sense that if pulled away from his rehearsed and polished talking point, he probably isn’t able to think on his feet any better than Barack Obama when deprived of his teleprompter. Everybody in the Republican party would feel a good deal better about Governor Romney were to take on Speaker Gingrich in a one-on-one debate and at least hold his own. Romney has long suffered from the sense among many Republican voters that he’s too plastic, and too packaged. This would give Romney the perfect opportunity to show he’s more than that, but instead of viewing this as an opportunity, it’s clear that his campaign sees the idea as a threat.
If Republican primary voters consider this refusal, it will be trouble for Romney. It may well kill off some of the lukewarm support he has enjoyed in some quarters, where he had been seen as the “safe candidate who can win.” Many eyebrows will now be raised, with Republicans wondering if he’s so safe, or able to win after all. The truth is that such conventional wisdom has always had a serious flaw, and it goes to the question about whether Mitt Romney is really up to a battle with Barack Obama. If he won’t debate Gingrich over fears of a poor showing, what will he do against Barack Obama,, who will doubtless have a slavish media moderating debates to the disadvantage of any Republican? In that environment, even a debater like Gingrich will be hard-pressed, but I wonder if Romney understands that in part, this primary campaign season is an audition for the part of dragon-slayer. If he cannot or will not face up to Gingrich alone, does he have any business next September/October on the stage with Obama?
It’s time for the Romney campaign to kick into gear and show the strengths of their candidate. Thus far, all they’ve shown is his ability to avoid stepping on lethal landmines, but they’ve shown nothing of his ability to charge the machine-gun nest across the field. Mitt Romney can’t win the nomination by avoiding Newt Gingrich, hoping the former Speaker of the House will somehow self-destruct. Now is the time for Romney to show he’s at least able to square off with Gingrich in a one-on-one test of intellect, and the fact that his own campaign so quickly dismissed and declined a debate with Gingrich merely suggests that the wider judgment of him by Republican voters has been correct all along: He’s not up to the task of governing the nation, and truly, if he will not stand up to Gingrich, there is no hope that even were he to defeat Obama, he’d be able to take on Harry Reid and other Democrats in the Congress. It doesn’t speak well of this would-be nominee that he hasn’t the stomach or the determination to withstand a debate with Gingrich. If he hold’s to this refusal, he’ll need to be careful that he’s not soon known as “Chicken-s**t Mitt.”