JUDY WOODRUFF: To 2012 presidential politics now and the announcement late today that Texas Gov. Rick Perry will jump into the race, confirming growing speculation.
That word came just hours before a GOP presidential debate in Iowa, where all the candidates have already converged, and it promises to shake up the campaign.
Before Perry's news, front-runner Mitt Romney, who showed up at the state fair in Des Moines today, was drawing attention for his encounter with a heckler.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: The way this is going to work is that you get to ask your question and I get to give you my answer. If you don't like my answer, you can vote for someone else.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Other Republicans in Iowa include Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Well, watching tonight's debate in a press corps of over 800 will be our own political editor, David Chalian. And he joins us now from the studios of Iowa Public Television in Des Moines.
DAVID CHALIAN: Hello, Judy. Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I guess that there is truly an elephant in the room tonight at this debate, with Gov. Perry's announcement.
What effect do you think this is going to have? And the timing is interesting.
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. It will be interesting tonight at the debate, since, obviously, Rick Perry won't be on the stage, how the other candidates, the eight candidates that are on the stage, respond to this news.
You know, earlier today, I was with Mitt Romney at the state fair. And somebody asked him what he thought of Rick Perry, and he wouldn't take the bait. He simply offered a platitude, Judy, saying, oh, he's a good friend and a good guy.
I don't know that anyone is going to take on Rick Perry tonight. But it does, as you said, shake up the race. He has already been polling in the top tier of the field. He's the longest-serving governor in the nation and well-known in Republican electorate -- inside the Republican primary electorate.
And for the last several weeks, Judy, he has been doing everything a presidential candidate or a potential presidential candidate would do, meeting with big donors, courting the base of the party with that big religious event he had, "The Response," in Houston this past weekend.
And he's headed to New Hampshire and South Carolina and here in Iowa this weekend. So, that's the big rollout. And they're wisely doing it in a way that they get to steal the thunder from this debate without any of the risk of actually participating in the debate.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It's remarkable, isn't it? Fascinating timing.
So, David, without Gov. Perry on the stage, the others there, this is the first debate in Iowa, and there are several candidates for whom, you know, with or without Rick Perry, there is a lot riding tonight.
DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt about that.
I think that Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, probably has the most to gain or lose today and then in a couple of days at the straw poll. His debate performance, you remember, a couple months ago in New Hampshire was widely panned. He had sort of telegraphed that he was going to take on Mitt Romney, the front-runner, and then didn't do so. And it made him look weak.
And so there are going to be a lot of eyes on Pawlenty tonight to see if he can revive his campaign. It sort of has been lackluster in fund-raising and in the polls. And he needs a moment that really puts him on the map.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot riding for Michele Bachmann as well?
DAVID CHALIAN: Yes. She is the buzz candidate here in Iowa, Judy.
She is riding high in the polls. She gets a lot of folks out at her events. She burst on to the scene, you remember, at that New Hampshire debate a couple months ago. She made a big splash because she announced her candidacy at the debate.
Now I think it is going to be sort of her burden to prove that, without that kind of gimmick to announce your candidacy, what can she show on the debate stage tonight, and can she rally supporters to Ames on Saturday for a big showing at the straw poll?
I think look out for Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum. These are the folks that have been working this state really hard alongside Bachmann and Pawlenty. They all want to make a good showing on Saturday at that straw poll. And they all are going to use tonight's debate to try to do that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David, any consensus on what Romney, who is, I guess, widely considered the current front-runner, and Jon Huntsman, neither of whom is spending a lot of time right now in Iowa, need to do tonight?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, Jon Huntsman, this is his first foray onto the debate stage. Nobody has really seen him in this kind of forum before.
And he's a widely unknown candidate. I think he has to sort of answer those fundamental questions of who am I and why am I here. Remember Admiral Stockdale in that famous vice presidential debate.
Jon Huntsman, there were such great expectations about his candidacy when he got into the race in June, and he just has not proven to live up to those expectations yet. And so I do think that there is going to be a lot of pressure on him to sort of explain the rationale for his candidacy.
But you are right. This is not his turf. He has already said he's skipping the Iowa caucuses next year, won't compete in them. He's very focused on New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
And Mitt Romney, listen, this is a front-running candidate that, you and I have talked about before, is a weak front-runner. And, obviously, that's the case, or Rick Perry wouldn't be getting in this late in the game. So, I think Mitt Romney, though, his goal is to stay above the fray. He is going to have the target on his back. He is the nominal front-runner.
And he has been trying this entire campaign to sort of just hit his message on the economy and get out of the way. He's not looking to mix it up with his fellow Republicans. He's not looking to try to jump on the headlines of any given political news story on any given day. He's trying very hard to stay focused on his vision of the economy vs. President Obama's. And I expect that is what he will try to do tonight as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, David Chalian, an interesting race in Iowa has already gotten more interesting today with the announcement that Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be jumping in.
And, by the way, with you in Iowa is our own Gwen Ifill, David. She will be reporting, I guess, tomorrow night on the debate and on the state of the race there.
Thank you very much.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And David will answer your questions about the GOP events in Iowa and the 2012 election season. Submit yours on the NewsHour's Rundown blog.