- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rick Santorum said Sunday that he wants to go head-to-head in a debate with Mitt Romney before the primary season is over — raising the possibility of one last showdown at some point.

“I accept,” Mr. Santorum told Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week,” when asked to debate Mr. Romney. “See if Gov. Romney is willing to come out. He’s been turning down every single debate. He’s hiding behind the billionaires who are funding his super PAC and spending outrageous amounts of money, all running negative ads.”

Mr. Romney’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but has soured on debates in recent weeks. He prefers instead to fight it out on the airwaves and through rallies and handshakes with voters in upcoming primary states.

The final scheduled debate of the campaign season was supposed to take place Monday in Oregon, but first Mr. Romney and then Mr. Santorum dropped out, causing organizers, including The Washington Times, to nix the affair rather than have just Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul face off.

“It was really Romney and Santorum, and their strategy has really shifted from a national audience to very much state-by-state,” said Allen Alley, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party.

The last three debates scheduled this year were canceled, leaving the total held at an even 20 — leaving behind a legacy that wasn’t entirely positive.

“There were too many debates that became repetitive with only a few of them having real fireworks among the candidates,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and co-founder of Singer Bonjean Strategies. “The debates helped to sort out the GOP field, but failed to create a consensus candidate that our party desperately needs to rally around and organize for November.”

Most agreed that the debates boosted Mr. Gingrich’s campaign well beyond the status his money and organization earned, and could have been the key to his victory in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary. That contest followed two debates in which the former House speaker turned the media questioners into punching bags, making them live targets for his anti-elitism attacks.

The debates also helped boost Herman Cain, whose charm before the cameras made him a favorite of the GOP debate audiences. His performances, and the appeal of his 9-9-9 tax plan, pushed him briefly into the lead in Iowa late last year before accusations of sexual harassment derailed his campaign.

Even before that, though, the debates served to winnow the field, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s dismal performances putting the brakes on the extraordinary momentum he carried into the race when he officially announced his candidacy in August.

Along the way, the affairs became must-watch political theater and helped shape what has been a contentious and confusing primary.

ABC’s prime-time debate in Iowa on Dec. 10 drew the best ratings of the season, with 7.6 million viewers tuning in.

One of the chief moments of that debate came when Mr. Perry was attacking Mr. Romney’s record on health care. Mr. Romney offered a $10,000 bet to settle who was right. Mr. Perry declined, but pundits said the line reinforced the story line that Mr. Romney is out of touch with regular voters.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and longtime aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said the debates ended up showing the entire party to be out of touch as the candidates fought to outdo one another by opposing legal status for illegal immigrants and, more recently, blasting President Obama’s move to require most health insurance plans to cover contraception.

“A couple months ago, I was pretty down on our chances in light of the current state of the economy, consumer confidence, etc.,” Mr. Manley said.

“Once I had a chance to focus in on the debates, I began to realize you’ve got to win with somebody, and these guys have nobody — which is, in part, why I think President Obama’s going to be re-elected in November,” he said.

All told, 10 candidates took part in the debates — though former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was allowed on stage for just two of them.

Rep. Thaddeus G. McCotter of Michigan and several other candidates who sought inclusion were not invited to any of the affairs.

South Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire each hosted four debates, and Iowa hosted three. The others were held in Michigan, Nevada, California, Arizona and the District of Columbia.

“It sure was a vetting process,” said Mr. Alley, the Oregon GOP chairman. “From that standpoint, the debates served their purpose. It was a vetting process. It certainly raised the name recognition of all of those candidates, without them having to spend the national money it would take to do that.”