In GOP Debate, Candidates Likely To Focus On Perry

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On Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, the leading Republican candidates for president will meet for a debate. It's the first featuring newly minted frontrunner Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination has been slow to form, but their primary battle is about to speed up. There are five Republican debates scheduled in just the next six weeks. The first is tonight at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, and it will be the first debate appearance for Texas Governor Rick Perry. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson tells us what to watch for.

MARA LIASSON: All eight candidates will be onstage, but the spotlight will be on two of them in particular, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the early frontrunner in the race, and Rick Perry, the new frontrunner.

SCOTT REED: All eyes are gonna be on Rick Perry.

LIASSON: Republican strategist Scott Reed managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.

REED: I think you're gonna have many of the frustrated candidates attacking him in this debate, trying to bring him down some. And, you know, Perry's job is to tell his story. He's got a good conservative governing story down in Texas and if he can talk about that and not get caught up in all the Texas bravado that he did in some of his announcement, I think he's gonna be off to a really good start.

LIASSON: Sticking to the Texas record has been Perry's strategy in past debates. Here he is in a Republican primary debate for governor in 2010.

Governor RICK PERRY: It really wears me out that we've got two people on the stage here that want to tear Texas down when the fact is, everybody understands this is a state you want to live in. We want to come here. This state is growing by a thousand people a day and it's not because we're overtaxing them, over-regulating them or over-litigating them. They're coming here because they know that this is the place to be, the land of opportunity.

LIASSON: Perry has another advantage tonight - low expectations, set in part by a bunch of articles questioning whether he's up to the job. And that, according to Texas Democratic strategist Jason Stanford, is way off the mark.

JASON STANFORD: Rick Perry is not dumb. Rick Perry is the best, most talented politician to come out of Texas since LBJ. And the fact that we're all sitting around still asking whether or not he's dumb says a little bit more about us than it does about him.

LIASSON: Perry's not a master debater, says Stanford, but he always gets the job done. And his job tonight as frontrunner is pretty simple - don't mess up. The challenge is tougher for the man Perry pushed off the top of the heap, Mitt Romney. Romney was able to brush off attacks from the other candidates in the earlier debates. In a New Hampshire debate in June, Romney could afford to be collegial.

Governor MITT ROMNEY: Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama.

LIASSON: But Romney is unlikely to be that magnanimous tonight, especially when it comes to Perry. But how to take Perry on? That's not a simple matter, says Jason Stanford, whose Democratic candidates have run and lost against Rick Perry.

STANFORD: Mitt Romney's going through what we've all gone through here in Texas, is that we all end up, by force of Rick Perry's brilliance in politics, playing Rick Perry's game. And that's what Mitt Romney's doing right now. He's trying to figure out how to get out of this box that Rick Perry has put him in. I think the best way to do it is to just show how disastrous he could be for the Republican Party. I know it sounds crazy now, but you got to stick with it.

LIASSON: It sounds crazy, Stanford admits, because right now, the polls show that in a hypothetical head to head race, Perry runs just about as well against President Obama as Romney. And if Romney argues that Perry is too extreme to appeal to the independent voters that decide general elections, that argument could backfire with more conservative Republican primary voters. And that, says Stanford, is the box Mitt Romney is in.

STANFORD: Mitt Romney cannot talk about how Rick Perry might be unelectable without making him seem more attractive to the Republican Party.

LIASSON: The challenge for the other candidates, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, John Huntsman, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, is to find a way to stay relevant in a race that seems to be leaving them behind. And then, there's Michele Bachmann, who stole the show at the New Hampshire debate with this dramatic announcement.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: I filed today, my paperwork, to seek the office of the presidency of the United States today, and I'll very soon be making my formal announcement. So I wanted you to be the first to know.

LIASSON: Bachmann surged into second place after winning the Iowa straw poll in August. But since Rick Perry got in, Bachmann's momentum as the anti-establishment conservative has faded. Tonight, she needs to find something that will change the current dynamic and stop the Republican race from turning into a two-man contest, Mitt Romney versus Rick Perry. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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