By Michael O’Brien - 09/07/11 12:30 AM EDT
Candidates in the Republican presidential field are widely expected to turn on one another at Wednesday’s debate, where the top two contenders for the GOP title will share a stage for the first time.
While President Obama will undoubtedly be the main target, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney will use the forum to size each other up — all while a host of other candidates try to leapfrog to the front by raising questions about the standard-bearers.
“It’s getting down to crunch time,” said Ron Nehring, a former chairman of the California Republican Party. “Now is the time when donors and volunteers start to choose candidates. This is the time when people start to decide to go onto websites and volunteer and write checks.”
Romney and Perry, whose attendance at Wednesday’s debate is in some doubt because of raging wildfires threatening central Texas, will both have something to prove. If Perry withdraws, it would postpone a showdown between the two until next week, and threatens to diminish one of the central storylines in Wednesday’s debate. Perry’s spokesman on Tuesday said the governor planned to attend.
While Perry looks to show he is no flash in the pan, Romney will try to regain lost ground against the man who usurped his status as the clear GOP front-runner.
The former Massachusetts governor emerged relatively unscathed from two previous debates, and his campaign has sought to dismiss any sense that it is in panic mode because of the Perry boomlet.
Instead, the Romney team has stayed focused on the longtime campaign strategy of becoming more active, and pushing its candidate to the forefront, after Labor Day.
An example of that strategy came Tuesday in Nevada, where Romney outlined a 59-point plan to create jobs and boost the flagging economy that he can be expected to highlight repeatedly at Wednesday’s debate.
Romney and his campaign have already highlighted a line of attack on Perry by saying that the nation’s problems cannot be solved by a career politician. The message, relayed in an address in Texas, Perry’s backyard, is intended to remind voters of Romney’s background in the private sector.
Perry allies are hoping the Texas governor is able to use the debate as an opportunity to make a good first impression with GOP voters.
“I think it’s one of those things where it’s really important to Rick Perry. Those first impressions, just like in life, it’s the same in politics,” said a figure working for the pro-Perry super-PAC Make Us Great Again.
Perry has faced doubts about his electability from Republican insiders who see Romney as the stronger general-election candidate.
Wednesday would give the Texan a showcase to show off his smarts and his charisma while engaging in the back-and-forth of a debate with the rest of a Republican field sure to test him.
The number and tenor of attacks against Perry will be a defining feature of the debate, said the Perry supporter, who suggested Romney risked coming off as “shrill” in his attacks.
The nature of the criticism would determine how the Texan might respond, Perry’s backer said.
“He’s not a huge front-runner; there’s not a huge front-runner in this,” the Perry supporter said.
Wednesday will also test the other candidates onstage — particularly Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), who must fend off questions over whether they are serious candidates now that Perry is in the race.
Bachmann must work to dispel a sense that her star has faded since winning the Ames straw poll in mid-August. She’s tumbled in the polls since Perry’s same-day entry into the race, and with campaign manager Ed Rollins and his deputy stepping down over the weekend, her campaign is now suffering perceptions of turmoil.
“You see Bachmann, she’s obviously rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” the Perry supporter said. “There’s panic there. There’s panic in Romneyville. So it’ll be interesting to see how much attacking will go on.”
The 2012 campaign has been marked in large part by a slower pace and later-than-expected entries by candidates. Wednesday’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Sinai, Calif., sponsored by NBC and Politico, had to be delayed from May, when it had been slated to be the first debate of the cycle, due to a lack of candidates and interest.
In the last month, the tone of the race has changed, and the GOP field will be tested in two more debates over the next two weeks.
That also raises the stakes for every participant. The entire field will be looking to raise money, project substance and build support with both grassroots and establishment supporters, Nehring said.
“The debate directly affects their ability in all four categories,” he said.