Modern presidential primary debates tend to be silly, shallow, gimmicky and ultimately not very useful in judging how the candidates would perform in the oval office. But they can also change the course of the campaign. The current Republican front runner, Rick Perry, should remember that during tonight’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. After all, it was a June 13 GOP debate that broke the back of Tim Pawlenty while briefly turning Michele Bachmann into a supernova. When Pawlenty wimped out on a previously-broadcasted attack against Romney’s health care record, he cemented the suspicion, far from a potential front-runner himself, Pawlenty just wasn’t ready for prime time. Bachmann, meanwhile, proved she can energize a room with her declaration that “Barack Obama is a one-term President,” a line that made up in pep-rally delivery what it lacked in originality, and pumped jet fuel into the Minnesotan’s charge towards an Iowa straw poll victory last month.
It’s clearly Perry, making his presidential debate debut, who has the most to lose tonight. He has emerged as the Republican front-runner just as his GOP rivals are ready to shift from introducing themselves to going on the attack. That could lead to a pile-on. Mitt Romney–who has watched Perry supercede him as the front runner since the Texas governor entered the race last month–is likely to fire shots at Perry’s record as a “career politician” who once supported a big Texas tax increase. Bachmann, who has seen Perry almost entirely obscure her once fast-rising star, might feel the need to strafe him with her slashing rhetoric. Jon Huntsman, desperate to escape the polling cellar, has grown feisty of late and may come ready to play rough. (Perry should also fear his journalist questioners: Politico‘s John Harris is as savvy as they come, and along with NBC’s Brian Williams is sure to devise questions that make Perry squirm over his many inconvenient statements, including his recent book’s self-destructive diatribe against Social Security. Much will depend on how much Harris and Williams decide Perry should be hazed.) Activists, donors and reporters will also be watching to see whether Perry can maintain his Lone Star swagger when the verbal mortars burst around him.
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Romney certainly faces his own risks. He has enough support to remain a very plausible nominee–but that support feels fragile, and perhaps one wobbly performance away from fizzling. Fortunately for Mitt, he has a brand-new jobs plan to tout, providing a safe island to which he can swim anytime. But don’t forget that Romney can fight hard in a debate when he wants to; just ask John McCain.
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Assuming the dynamics of the race remain roughly the same in the coming weeks, a key question tonight and in the many debates yet to come is how the lesser candidates treat Romney and Perry. Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all seem unlikely bets to win the nomination. But together they command a lot of Republican voters, ones who may eventually leave them for one of the two front-runners. Will they signal any preference onstage? Ron Paul has shown a knack for creating memorable debate moments, and he has already bashed Perry with a television ad. Given that he tends to be (noisily) over represented in debate audiences, Paul could turn out to be a land mine for the Texas governor tonight.
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While one debate really can alter a campaign, anyone who might blow it tonight will have plenty of chances for a do-over: Republicans are scheduled to debate again on Monday night in Tampa, and three more times in the next six weeks. You can still be sure that Rick Perry is as determined to ride high in the saddle tonight as his rivals are hell-bent on knocking the Texan right out of his stirrups.