With Mitt Romney's announcement on Tuesday that he will not attend a debate moderated by Donald Trump, the endeavor seems to be collapsing before it has begun.

Only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have accepted the invitation to Trump's Dec. 27 debate. Romney, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman have declined: Romney politely; Paul and Huntsman not so politely. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry remain on the fence -- but even if both of them did attend, the event would include just one front-runner alongside three candidates with single-digit poll numbers. What kind of a presidential debate is that?

One can't blame Romney for turning Trump down. The last thing his campaign needs, when it is struggling to hold on to its front-runner status, is to be associated with a man whom 65 percent of Americans dislike, and with a debate whose partiality is flagrant.

How can Trump possibly be a fair moderator when he has publicly praised some candidates, dismissed others outright as jokes and threatened to run for president himself if the wrong candidate wins the Republican nomination? To Grover Norquist, who said in a statement, I am assured that Donald Trump will be a fair-minded moderator and joined by serious journalists, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. At half price, too!

Rove Gets It Right

I don't normally agree with Karl Rove, but he got it right on this one: We've got a guy who is not only saying, 'I'm going to make a decision about who I'm going to endorse shortly after this debate, and I'm already leaning some way, and I may run myself,' and we expect him to be the impartial moderator of the debate? Rove told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on Monday. Could you imagine what would happen if MSNBC was hosting a debate and the moderator said, 'Well, I'm going to endorse one of the Republican candidates after this debate?'

Face it: if the participants want Trump's endorsement -- and Gingrich, at least, has said publicly that he does, although given Trump's unpopularity, it's hard to see why -- they will spend the debate trying to secure Trump's endorsement, not presenting their platforms to the American people. It is no secret that Trump is holding this debate for the ratings, not to bring anything of value to the Republican race. He has been remarkably candid about that.

Romney, Paul and Huntsman have done the right thing in turning him down, whatever vitriol Trump wants to hurl at them for it and whatever lofty claims he wants to make about his influence.

When Romney sent his regrets on Tuesday, Trump responded with a statement: It would seem logical to me that if I was substantially behind in the polls, especially in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, I would want to participate in this debate. Michael Cohen, one of his political advisers, struck a similar note, claiming that Trump's appeal was vast and includes not only conservatives, but in essence, anyone who's interested -- irrespective of party affiliation -- in making America great and respected again. He added ominously that any candidate who chose not to participate in the debate was making a grave mistake.

Au contraire -- if I were behind in the polls, participating in Trump's debate would be the last thing I would want to do.  

Like any megalomaniac worth his salt, Trump vastly overestimates his own credibility. He seems to think that his endorsement will be a coup for the lucky candidate who gets it, and that any candidate who doesn't chase it will suffer for his or her lack of association with The Donald. But in the real world, voters say by a 2-to-1 margin that they would be less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Trump.

The American people don't like Trump. And though Trump will never acknowledge it, every candidate that turns down his debate invitation and every commentator that mocks his attempts to influence the Republican race is sending him a single message: You're fired.