AUSTIN, Texas — After charging to the front of the pack in less than four weeks, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will make his debut in a national presidential debate this week when he goes face-to-face with Republican rivals eager to undercut his surging political momentum.
Perry has brushed up on research, met with experts and gone through at least one mock debate to prep for Wednesday's prime-time match-up at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., according to his campaign team.
With polls showing him as the current Republican front-runner, Perry will be under pressure to turn in a top-of-his-game performance that solidifies his front-runner status. He will also be seeking to appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate to demonstrate his ability to beat President Barack Obama in the 2012 general election.
Perry is facing essentially the same challenge that confronted his predecessor, then-Gov. George W. Bush, more than a decade ago.
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Bush was also the Republican frontrunner going into his first national debate in Manchester, N. H., in December 1999. Bush deftly fended off attacks from his rivals, according to press accounts, but later lost the New Hampshire primary to Arizona Sen. John McCain before recovering and ultimately winning the presidency in 2000.
The Simi Valley showdown will be the first of several Republican debates over the next six weeks. Another major test for Perry will come in a Sept. 12 debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express at the Florida Fairgrounds in Tampa.
Perry, who entered the race on Aug. 13, has campaigned heavily in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — states that hold early contests — by touting Texas' robust economic growth, denouncing intrusive federal policies and assailing Obama's economic track record. Judging from his performance in the polls, the message is resonating with a large swath of voters, and Perry will presumably hope to further spotlight those themes during his coming-out debate in California.
"Unless he starts speaking in tongues, I predict Rick Perry wins the debate," says Texas humorist Kinky Friedman, who debated Perry in 2006 as an independent gubernatorial candidate and now says he would "absolutely" support his former rival over Obama.
Nevertheless, the tightly scripted debate format will also force Perry to constrict his talking points while moderators and Republican rivals exploit possible weaknesses. Rival campaign operations have conducted extensive opposition research into Perry's nearly 11-year record as Texas's longest serving governor, the fruits of which may become more evident Wednesday night.
Congressman Ron Paul, the only other Texan in the race, has portrayed Perry and other candidates as being part of "the status quo" that he says Americans now resent. A Super-PAC supporting Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of Perry's chief rivals for Tea Party support, has unveiled ads that accuse Perry of increasing state pending, suggesting a possible line of attack for Bachmann in Wednesday's debate. Perry's campaign has dismissed the ads as erroneous.
The debate will also be a major test for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was widely acknowledged as the Republican front-runner before Perry eclipsed him in the polls. Romney will use the forum to contrast his record as "successful businessman and a fiscally conservative governor to President Obama's record of failed leadership, exploding deficits and fiscal mismanagement," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.
Analysts say that Perry's Republican opponents must be careful that any attacks on the Texas governor don't hurt their own support within the party's conservative base. For his part, they say, Perry must have an error-free performance that shows he would be worthy of the 2012 Republican nomination. "I think he has to really show that he is deserving of this surge," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
During his three campaigns as governor, Perry has generally been judged as a competent debater who avoids getting tripped up and stays on message, often by using the time-tested tactic of veering away from the questions to get back to his talking points. He often laces his answers with down-to-earth expressions that reflect his rural West Texas roots — and the national media already has fixated on his accent and mannerisms.
He also is not shy about going on the offensive or lecturing his opponents, as he did in a 2010 Republican primary debate when he sought to portray his chief challenger, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, as a Washington insider who supported federal bailouts of banks and automakers.
But, at the same time, even supporters acknowledge that Perry isn't at his best in the structured rigidity of debates, saying that he much prefers the retail politics of hand-shaking and personal appearances to get his message across.
"It's not his preferred venue," said Perry communications director Ray Sullivan, "but we respect the process and intend to participate, and are confident that he will have a solid performance."
Sullivan, a long-time member of Perry's political team, said Perry has followed the same "time-tested process" to prepare for the upcoming presidential debates as he has in gubernatorial debates.
One central feature of the training, he said, is a "mock debate that is as similar to the expected debate as possible." Perry has already participated in one mock debate, Sullivan said last week, and could have another one before Wednesday's live confrontation. The campaign selects participants to play the candidates as well as the moderators. One criterion, said Sullivan, is that the stand-ins be "comfortable enough with the governor to be hard on him."
Sullivan declined to identify the stand-ins, other than to say that "they tend to be people that we've known."
Perry and his policy team have also done "a lot of reading" and have met with experts to broaden the governor's expertise on a variety of fronts, including foreign policy, Sullivan said. Perry has met with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as well as former Pentagon officials, Sullivan said.
"One strong point about Rick Perry is that he's always had great research at hand," said Houston attorney Chris Bell, a former Democratic congressman who ran against Perry in 2006.
(Montgomery reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
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