Florida debate uncertain without Romney commitment

Mitt Romney's campaign has not said it is committed to Monday night's Republican debate in Tampa, Fla., leading to speculation the former governor will not be participating.

NBC News has not canceled the event, but a statement from a network spokeswoman suggests Romney has not signed on.

ADVERTISEMENT
“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.

The Romney campaign did not respond to The Hill's request for a comment.

Romney is coming off two shaky debate performances this week, fumbling questions about releasing his tax returns. His main rival, Newt Gingrich, is pushing past Romney in the polls and has demonstrated time and again he's a strong debater.

In the most recent debate, held Thursday night in Charleston, S.C., the former Speaker combatively deflected questions about his past marriage by attacking the media, earning him a standing ovation from the crowd.

It would not be the first debate Romney has skipped. He missed the very first event of the cycle — a Fox News event held on May 5, 2011, in Greenville, S.C.


Romney also has an advantage his rivals don't in Florida — plenty of campaign funds. The Sunshine State has some of the most expensive media markets in the country, and Romney is the only candidate on the air there. Also, Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super-PAC, is advertising in the state on his behalf.

If Romney doesn't attend the debate and NBC cancels it, it would deny Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul some much-needed free air time.

While NBC said preparations continue, The Tampa Tribune reported Friday the network sent local affiliates a message saying the debate has been replaced on that evening's schedule with "Fear Factor" and "Rock Center."

Adding to the uncertainty is a convoluted message from a top Romney adviser.

Stuart Stevens told reporters in the spin room after Thursday night's debate that the former governor "will debate in Florida" — although he didn't specify what debate or when or where.

"We've had four debates so far this month," Stuart said. "We've had what, 15 debates?"

There is another one scheduled in Florida besides Monday's. Next Thursday CNN hosts one in Jacksonville. The network did not respond when The Hill asked whether Romney had confirmed his participation.

— Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.