Debate Prep: Mitt Romney, Leading From Off Stage

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Mitt Romney won’t be at the first 2012 presidential debate Thursday night, even though he is the closest thing to the field’s frontrunner. “It’s still early, the field is too unsettled and he’s not yet an announced candidate,” says Romney aide Matt Rhodes, who is already effectively running the unofficial Romney campaign.

As a strategy, this makes a lot of sense. For months, Romney aides have been saying privately that they want a late start to the 2012 campaign — with Romney’s advantage in name identification, they have no reason to jump in early, and they can save money for later in the cycle. Romney has never been a strong campaigner, or a riveting debater. But his decision to skip this debate is not a slam dunk. He is a candidate who plans to found his campaign on his own record of bold leadership. (His last book was called, “No Apology.”) By playing it safe off stage, Romney risks having his strategy step on his message.

After all, Romney is actively running for president, even if he is “unannounced.” He is far more committed than early wafflers like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Jon Huntsman just quit is day job a few days ago. Newt Gingrich is still trying to extricate himself from his non-presidential fundraising opportunities. And yet, Romney is choosing not to be the man in the arena. Compare the candidate who chooses not to debate because it is easier with the guy in this ad, from the 2008 cycle.

As a single data point, Romney’s pass on Fox isn’t likely to haunt him. He will be spending Thursday night at a fundraiser for Boston’s Perkins School for the Blind Fundraiser, no doubt a worthy cause. But candidates for President all eventually must live or die on their performance, not their reputations or strategic positioning. And by dodging the campaign, even as he claims to be able to perform on a larger stage, he is raising the stakes even higher for the moment he does come out of the shadows to admit what everyone already knows.

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