- - Thursday, March 15, 2012

Organizers on Thursday canceled the final debate of the Republican presidential campaign season, slated for Monday, after two of the GOP’s four candidates declined to participate.

The affair, which was sponsored by The Washington Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregon Republican Party, was to have taken place on Monday in Portland — and would have been the 21st debate of the primary.

But Mitt Romney, the field’s front-runner, said earlier this week he wouldn’t participate, and Rick Santorum, his chief opponent, couldn’t commit to the debate either.

Organizers had vowed to move forward if three of the candidates had been willing, but only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul could commit.

Allen Alley, chairman of the Oregon GOP, said the campaigns signaled that the national platform offered by the widely viewed debates was less important at this stage of the primaries.

“They just said, ‘Look, the strategy now has to be a state-by-state ground game,’ ” Mr. Alley said.

Monday’s debate was to be staged two days after Missouri held its caucuses, a day after Puerto Rico held its primary, and just a day before Illinois Republicans are scheduled to go to the polls.

Organizers offered to change the date to Wednesday or to move the affair to Illinois, but the candidates said they couldn’t fit debate preparation into their schedules amid all the votes.

The primary has already lasted longer than most analysts had predicted, and Mr. Santorum in particular has proved to be a formidable hurdle for Mr. Romney.

Mr. Romney needs to win 48 percent of all delegates going forward to head off a contested nominating convention in Tampa this summer, and Mr. Alley said it’s becoming harder for the former Massachusetts governor to get to that point.

Three debates had been scheduled for March but all of them have now been canceled. The last GOP debate was in Arizona on Feb. 22.

The debates have proven a major part of the 2012 primary story, giving some lesser-known candidates exposure while at the same time exposing weaknesses — particularly on the part of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the race last summer and shot to the top of the polls, but stumbled in the early debates and never recovered.