Romney Campaign Curling Up in a Ball on Floor

Welcome to Mitt Romney's nightmare Photo: Joe Raedle/2012 Getty Images

Not only is he hedging on how much of his tax forms to release, now Mitt Romney’s campaign is hedging on whether to participate in the next debate:

Mitt Romney is wavering on whether to participate in a debate at the University of South Florida on Monday night.

Asked whether he has committed to the debate in light of news reports suggesting otherwise, Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams responded in an email today, "We have no announcements at this point on upcoming debates."

I understand the thinking here: The debates have really helped Newt Gingrich, so if he backs out of the debate, the terms of the contest would shift back to paid advertising, where he holds a massive advantage. But backing out of a debate would itself be a huge story, which would feed into Gingrich’s narrative. (He’s the guy who will challenge Obama to a gigantic, marathon debate lasting the entire duration of the campaign, until one of them dies of starvation, and we know which one has more stored energy to draw upon.) Backing out would implant serious doubts about Romney’s strength as a candidate.

It’s such a terrible idea, in fact, that I’d be stunned if Romney isn’t quickly talked into committing himself to the debate. What’s interesting is that his campaign is even pondering such a move right now. The hesitation to release his tax forms and the hesitation to participate in the debate both smell of fear. It’s what Nate Silver analogizes to a “prevent defense” strategy – becoming so averse to a terrible thing happening that you foolishly let your opponent back into the game. Releasing his tax returns and having a debate are both opportunities for Romney’s opponents to gain on him, but backing away hurts Romney even more.

Romney is a really smart guy who has run a shrewd campaign until recently. I'm shocked how rattled he appears.