The Frontrunner, the Dwarfs and the Debate

If you were hankering for a great debate about health care, birth control and bombing Iran, don't expect to see Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney square off in Portland March 19. Photo by Panorama Mercantil.Oregon Public Broadcasting brushed off objections by Mayor Sam Adams, but it may be harder to sustain a GOP presidential primary debate in Portland without a frontrunner.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney dispatched a staff member to announce he wouldn't be participating in the March 19 debate in Portland hosted by OPB and broadcast by National Public Radio. Now the question is whether any of the three other remaining presidential candidates will participate. So far, only Newt Gingrich has committed to attend.

While Gingrich's outsized personality and political rhetoric can fill a stage, it is debatable whether the debate will go on if he is a solo act.

There have been 20 Republican presidential debates, the last one February 23 in Arizona. The contest since then has turned into a regional sideshow with Romney, Gingrich and Rick Santorum stumping the country in the shadow of advertising by their respective supporting SuperPACs. Ron Paul depends on his organic grassroots network of support.

The presidential debates may have gone off-script as they degenerated into squabbling, which didn't looked especially presidential. Since Super Tuesday, when Romney picked up victories, including in two states where his main opponents failed to get on the ballot, the frontrunner has chosen to campaign on his status as frontrunner.

Why descend back into the arena to debate opponents who you daily declare don't have the ability mathematically to win enough delegates at the GOP national convention, which is still months away?

OPB's listeners can survive a vanishing Portland presidential debate. However, the Oregon Republican Party, already smarting from failing to attract any candidate to run for attorney general and state treasurer, wanted the debate to hype its existence — and as a fundraiser.

Romney, who pledged to show up in Oregon before its May primary election, follows in the footsteps of 2008 presidential hopeful John McCain, who gave up on the state and pulled his campaign staff. That move undermined the re-election bid of Oregon Senator Gordon Smith by denying Oregon of critical presidential campaign air cover. 

Romney, like McCain, may figure he has no chance to win this state in November because it is deep blue and has fewer moderate Republicans than Kansas.

Adams may not have to worry after all about the added expense of hosting presidential candidates with Secret Service entourages. Gingrich campaigns to his own drummer and, according to commenters in The Oregonian, Paul has strong appeal in the Occupy Portland movement. That shouldn't even tie up traffic.