Tonight’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library will be the first one featuring pro-life Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has the most to win or lose following his entrance into the contest.
Perry made his GOP presidential bid official weeks ago and he has quickly vaulted to the top of the polls nationally and in leading battleground states like Iowa and South Carolina. That’s a change from previous debates, where Mitt Romney was the frontrunner and much of the attention was on whether other candidates would pile on him in an attempt to become the top alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
Since his announcement, the focus has been entirely on Perry as many Republicans looking for a viable conservative alternative combining a pro-life position, experience and record and who were not enamored with the field to that point have rallied around him. Perry’s quick climb to the top of the polls has some pundits already suggesting he is the likely nominee, but others say the debate is a critical first test for him to determine whether he can withstand hard questions from the press and potential criticism from Republican rivals looking to boost their own campaigns after spending weeks eating his dust.
Two Republicans have already launched attacks — including Rep. Ron Paul, who released an ad focusing on Perry’s stats as a former Democrat decades ago who, like millions of other Americans shifted to the Republican Party as the Democratic Party continued its leftward move over the years. The Perry camp immediately hit back, noting that Paul ran as a presidential candidate in 1980 on the Libertarian Party ticket, with many libertarians backing legalizing drugs, using a gold-standard economic system and advancing other political ideas outside the mainstream.
Michele Bachmann also went after Perry, with a supportive political action committee running ads against him in South Carolina – a traditional make or break state that has voted for the eventual nominee in all of the recent presidential contests on the GOP side.
Clearly anticipating the attacks, Perry went on the offensive Tuesday afternoon and sent out statements criticizing Paul and Romney.
With each of the Republican presidential candidates taking a pro-life position on abortion, pro-life voters will likely be looking at other factors in tonight’s debate to help them determine which candidate to support.
For Perry, the clear question will be whether he is ready for prime time. The prolife movement has a clear goal in 2012 to defeat pro-abortion President Barack Obama and install a pro-life president who will appoint the kind of judges to the Supreme Court necessary to overturn Roe v. Wade and start the process of offering legal protection for unborn children. Perry must make the case that he understands the issues and can articulate them and advance his positions on them in such a way as to be able to take on Obama next year.
Should he perform well, Perry could solidify his frontrunner status and make it very difficult for anyone to challenge that. Should he falter, the race for the Republican nomination could become wide open.
Romney, the former frontrunner, still has significant convincing to do in terms of assuring Republican voters he is conservative enough to warrant their vote. Although he has been consistently pro-life on his positions since switching from the pro-abortion position before his last presidential run, doubt among pro-life voters is still very high. The clear focus of the debate will be the beleaguered status of the American economy under Obama, but Romney still has much work to do to convince Republicans he will advance the pro-life agenda and appoint judges who will respect the Constitution and not use it to advance abortion.
Bachmann must recapture some of the buzz that propelled her campaign to a first place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll. She was thought to be the top Romney alternative when the campaign of pro-life former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty fizzled, but Perry’s entrance took much of the wind out of her sails and she has fallen slightly in the polls since then. Bachmann must produce some of that magic and reassure Republicans that her light resume in her few years as a member of the House is not an impediment to toppling Obama, who also had a thin record of legislative accomplishment when he won the presidency in 2008.
For the rest of the candidates — people like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Paul, and Jon Huntsman — they must be able to get themselves into the top-tier. Paul is there by virtue of his polling and strong support form his loyal backers, but his views on so many issues put him outside the Republican mainstream. He will have to find a way to appeal to the large portion of Republican voters who simply find him lacking the credibility to become the nominee. Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman and Santorum have turned in strong debate performances before — so tonight’s debate may not do much to convince voters that they deserve the nomination. Their best shots likely come in the way of punching holes in Perry and Romney and hoping they can emerge as the next best option if they fail.
Candidates will have the opportunity to bash each other tonight if only because Brian Williams will moderate, along with Politico’s John F. Harris, the GOP presidential candidate debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Williams is known for showing his hostility to the Republican side of the political coin, has mocked Tea Party activists and heavily criticized Sarah Palin.