Will Romney start skipping debates?

The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is obviously today, and will be followed by the Florida primary a week from Tuesday. In anticipation of the fourth nominating contest, there are two debates scheduled for the upcoming week: an NBC debate in Tampa on Monday, and a CNN debate in Jacksonville on Thursday.

There is, however, a problem: the Republican frontrunner won’t commit to showing up.

In fact, there was widespread talk yesterday that Monday’s event had already been scrapped, with NBC concluding the debate isn’t worth holding if Mitt Romney wouldn’t participate. The network denied the reports about a cancellation, but the schedule remains uncertain.

“Preparations for the NBC News, National Journal, Tampa Bay Times debate continue,” NBC spokesperson Erika Masonhall told me. “We fully intend to proceed with this long-planned event and we hope and expect all the qualifying candidates will participate.”

But as of this afternoon, NBC has left the standard Monday program listings in place — “Fear Factor” at 9 p.m. and “Rock Center” at 10 p.m. — a decision the network attributes to an abundance of caution. The network says those listings will be updated with more timely information as it becomes known.

The Romney camp has been hinting all week that it’s grown weary of these events, and may simply choose to stop participating (in some or all). As of yesterday, a spokesperson for the former governor said in a statement, “We have no announcements at this point on upcoming debates.”

One could make the case that Romney and his aides aren’t necessarily hiding, but rather, they just don’t see the value in this seemingly endless stream of debates. The Florida events would be the 17th and 18th debates for the GOP candidates, and by any fair measure, that’s quite a few.

But I think that’s a far-too-generous interpretation. Put it this way: if Romney were excelling in these debates, and wowing Republican voters in every appearance, is there any way in the world he’d consider blowing them off? Of course not. In fact, for months, Romney was seen as easily the best debater in the field, and at the time, it seemed as if he couldn’t wait for the next one.

Then Newt Gingrich started getting standing ovations, and all of a sudden, Team Romney isn’t so sure these debates are such a great idea after all.

The fact that Romney and his staff aren’t willing to commit to more debates isn’t a sign of fatigue; it’s a sign of panic. The frontrunner has apparently concluded that Gingrich benefits more from these gatherings, so Romney wants to stop giving the former Speaker such a platform.

There is, however, a huge risk from backing out. How soon will it be before Republican insiders start asking themselves, “If Romney lacks the confidence to debate Gingrich, what will he do when he’s up against President Obama?”

Update: As of 9:42 a.m., the Romney campaign has confirmed the former governor will attend Monday’s debate. No official word yet on Thursday’s event.