Mitt Romney's campaign won’t firmly commit to Monday night's GOP debate in Tampa, Fla., leaving some to suspect the former Massachusetts governor will not be participating, according to a report by The Hill.
With the crucial Republican presidential primary in South Carolina just hours away, stumbling front-runner Romney is acknowledging what some opinion polls are suggesting: He could lose Saturday.
Adding to the Romney camp’s consternation -- and, according to The Hill report, perhaps the key reason behind Romney’s hedging about Monday’s debate in Tampa -- the candidate has endured two middling debate performances this week, fumbling reasons for not immediately revealing tax returns.
Repeating the weak performance next week in the face of a confident, debate-savvy, and possibly freshly victorious Newt Gingrich may not be what the doctor ordered.
The idea that the former governor of liberal Massachusetts may not win the primary in a state where conservative evangelical Christians make up about 60 percent of Republican voters isn't that surprising, reports Reuters.
But Romney's path to a neck-and-neck finish with former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich has begun to look like a lost opportunity, defined by Romney's reluctance to reveal more about his vast wealth and his repeated inability to explain why.
The former private equity executive's discomfort in discussing such personal matters was again evident in Thursday night's debate in Charleston. When asked whether he would release 12 years of tax returns as his father, George, had done while running for president in 1968, Romney said through a thin smile, "Maybe."
The answer drew a few catcalls from the conservative audience, and contrasted sharply with how Gingrich deftly turned a question about cheating on his second wife into an attack on the media that drew a standing ovation.
It may have been the defining moment of the campaign in South Carolina, the third contest in the state-by-state race to determine who will face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 elections.
All the debate drama may indeed be impacting some long-held plans.
The Hill reports that NBC News has not yet formally canceled the Tampa debate event, but a statement from a network spokeswoman leaves the question of Romney’s attendance precariously hanging.
“Preparations for the NBC News, National Journal, Tampa Bay Times debate continue. We fully intend to proceed with this long-planned event and we hope and expect all the qualifying candidates will participate," a spokeswoman said, according to The Hill.
The Romney campaign, according to The Hill, may feel that it has some leeway to skip a debate in Florida. The Romney war chest in Florida is brimming. Romney ads are filling the air waves. Furthermore, Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super-PAC, is hitting the state’s media on his behalf.
Despite the money flow and the expensive air time, Romney appeared to be scrambling at the end of the week to pump up supporters' enthusiasm and launch new attacks on Gingrich. A nettlesome question continued to hang over Romney's campaign: Why does he have such difficulty answering questions about his money?
His wealth, now an estimated $270 million, has been an issue during his previous runs for office -- notably in 1994, when he lost a U.S. Senate race to incumbent Democrat Ted Kennedy.
Romney said Friday that he has been more focused on campaign issues such as jobs and the economy, and acknowledged that he may not have handled questions about his finances as well as he could have.
"I can't possibly tell you that everything I do in the campaign is perfect," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, according to The Hill, The Tampa Tribune revealed Friday that the network sent their local affiliates a message saying the debate was being scratched on that evening's schedule -- with "Fear Factor" and "Rock Center" poised to fill the slot.
A top Romney adviser, Stuart Stevens, has added fuel to the Romney debate pass by saying only that his boss "will debate in Florida."
Significantly, next Thursday CNN hosts a GOP Primary debate in Jacksonville.
Gallup’s top editor told MSNBC this morning that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s lead in the polls is “collapsing” across the nation, citing polling numbers that have changed dramatically over the last few days.
Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, appeared on the MSNBC’s “Jansing & Co.” to share the results of Gallup’s national tracking poll. The gap between Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is quickly closing, according to that poll.
“We’ll see this gap closing more,” said Newport. “Romney was up 23 points over Newt Gingrich. Now it will be down about 10 points. So clearly, things are collapsing.”
The Gallup poll showed a big lead for Romney nationally after he won the New Hampshire primary. But Gingrich has surged in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 with his two latest strong debate performances.
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