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Not a single person has voted yet, but if you believe the polls, Rick Perry is a solid front-runner as Republican presidential candidates prepare for another debate tonight. The event is sponsored by Fox News and YouTube. It comes in Florida, which will be a critical swing state for whoever wins the nomination. And the former front-runner, Mitt Romney, is looking for a way back into the lead in the race for that nomination. NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, has more.
MARA LIASSON: Mitt Romney has advantages he didn't have when he ran four years ago. He has the valuable experience of having run before. He has a tighter, more disciplined campaign. And, says Romney strategist Russ Schriefer, this year's political environment is tailor-made for Romney's resume.
RUSS SCHRIEFER: The biggest difference is that you have this unique combination of the biggest issue of the day, which is jobs and the economy, is exactly what Governor Romney is very good at. So, I mean, he's spent his career in the private sector. He understands how jobs are made. The times couldn't be better for someone like Governor Romney to come in there and take charge.
LIASSON: And for a while, Romney seemed in charge of the Republican field, with his sights fixed firmly on President Obama. But then Rick Perry forced Romney to alter his strategy, says Sara Taylor, who was the political director in the Bush White House.
SARA TAYLOR: The very fact that Rick Perry shows up out of nowhere and is at 30 percent of the vote says something about the front-runner, at least the former front-runner, Mitt Romney.
It does say to me that Republicans in this cycle are really looking for an energized conservative to lead the race. Now, I think that is a challenge for Romney, so he is doing exactly what you would expect him to do, pointing out those electability flaws that Rick Perry has.
LIASSON: And Romney's main attack on Perry isn't ideological, it's strategic. He's zeroed in on Perry's past statements about Social Security to argue that the Perry can't beat President Obama.
Governor MITT ROMNEY: Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security.
LIASSON: The Perry campaign is fighting back with an attack on Romney's conservative credentials. Yesterday, a Perry spokesman said Romney sounds like a Democrat trying to scare senior citizens.
Vin Weber is a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, and he says this is the new dynamic of the Republican race.
VIN WEBER: Now we're in a two-person race with Governor Perry. It's going to mean that these two candidates inevitably have to clash with each other, somewhat, over the issues.
LIASSON: The clash isn't only about Social Security or job creation in Texas. The Romney campaign is attacking Perry on anything it can, hoping to raise doubts about Perry's readiness for the White House. Vin Weber.
WEBER: I don't think that any one issue is going to be the fatal problem for Governor Perry. I think it's a whole set of issues that lead people to be very nervous about him. You know, questioning the direct election of senators, musing with the thought that Texas should secede from the Union. The question is: When Republican primary voters sort of string all of those positions together, do they see a real vulnerability or not?
LIASSON: There are some new polls that show the gap between Romney and Perry narrowing and others polls that show Romney doing a little better than Perry in a match-up with President Obama, but not by enough, yet, to make Perry look unelectable.
BRUCE KEOUGH: Electability is kind of the fool's gold of politics. Nobody buys that the candidate that they really like and support is not electable.
LIASSON: Republican activist Bruce Keough was the New Hampshire state chair of Romney's campaign in 2008. This year, Keough decided not to support Romney, but he hasn't committed to another candidate.
KEOUGH: From a pragmatic perspective, Mitt Romney has a lot going for him. He clearly seems to be a better candidate this time around than he was in 2008. He's done a great job in the debates.
On the other hand, many Republicans like myself are fearful that Mitt is more a manager than a transformational leader, and that he'll do a good job dealing with his inbox every day, but perhaps what the country really needs is someone who's going to really shake things up. And I think Rick Perry sends a lot of good vibes in that direction.
LIASSON: That's the challenge for Romney - to convince Republican voters that those good vibes they feel from Rick Perry, now, will only lead to defeat next November.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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