John McCain skipped debates before. He even sent an aide once, to stand in for him.
In 1984 only 20 people showed up for a congressional campaign debate between John McCain and Harry Braun. Reason? John McCain was campaigning for GOP candidates in Massachusetts and could not appear. Aide Grant Woods stood in for McCain.
In February 2000 McCain backed out of a debate with George W. Bush in California. The decision to avoid debating Bush clearly upset some of McCain’s top advisers. “It’s definitely a mistake, but hopefully, the people of California feel strongly enough about the McCain reform agenda…to overlook a staff error and come out and vote for John McCain', said Schnur, a longtime California political operative.
In September 2007 McCain declined to go to a debate hosted by the social-conservative group ValuesVoter.org. The biggest GOP names cited scheduling conflicts. That didn’t stop questioners from addressing the front-runners who didn’t attend. ‘They will regret the decision, said Jan Folger, president of Faith2Action and a member of the debate host committee. Because they snubbed us, they will not win, because we will not follow their lead.
In that same month, McCain, Giuliani, Romney and Thompson were absent at the first presidential prime time debate with a panel exclusively of journalists of color. The organizers put empty podiums on the stage in place of the candidates who refused to attend.