Perry-Romney Battle to Take Center Stage at Republican Debate

BY News Desk  September 7, 2011 at 8:44 AM EDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry campaigns in Iowa last month. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

All eyes will be on Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he takes the stage to participate in his first debate of the presidential campaign season. In just a little over three weeks, Perry has skyrocketed to the head of the pack and will, therefore, be wearing the largest target at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Wednesday night. (And the biggest portion of that target may come from his own words in his book “Fed Up.”)

The NBC News/POLITICO debate kicks off at 8 p.m. ET.

Seven other candidates will be on stage with the Texas governor, but none with as much to prove as former front-runner Mitt Romney. Unlike in the two previous debates in which he participated, Romney can no longer attempt to just stay above the fray and focus on President Obama. The former Massachusetts governor will likely try to demonstrate that he’s willing to fight for the nomination, and that means drawing sharp contrasts with Perry.

Perry has been back in the Lone Star State working his day job because of the devastating wildfires there, but he is expected to attend the debate.

The eight GOP contenders also take the stage at a time when President Obama is facing the lowest approval ratings of his term and the American public is exhibiting the greatest level of pessimism in the last three years.

That backdrop makes for an easy strategy to keep all of the heat trained at President Obama. But Wednesday night’s debate marks the first of three over the next two weeks, and by the time the third one draws to a close on Sept. 22, the dynamics of the Republican nomination battle will begin to harden. Therefore, none of the candidates can afford to let this opportunity pass without pressing for a strategic advantage.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has largely disappeared from the conversation in the wake of Perry’s entrance on the day she won the Iowa Straw Poll, must make clear that she is relevant and a threat to Perry if she is to sustain even her diminished level of support.

Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, has been spending the last two weeks in a more aggressive posture against his Republican opponents. It will be worth watching to see if, under the banner of Reagan and in a high-profile debate setting, he is willing to abandon the Gipper’s 11th commandment and continue that line of attack.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul has shown no shyness in taking on Perry in recent days, but he has his own set of challenges in broadening his appeal beyond what he has proven capable of doing thus far.

Maggie Haberman of POLITICO looks at the questions begging for answers in Wednesday’s debate.

One thing made clear by the reaction to Romney’s economic and jobs speech Tuesday by both the Huntsman and Perry campaigns is that his opponents are not willing to give him an inch as he seeks to own the most important issue on voters’ minds.

It seems there are two things you can count on for Wednesday’s debate: The candidates will be more rehearsed and prepared to discuss their opponents’ records than at any previous moment in the campaign and Ronald Reagan’s name will be invoked more times than you can count on two hands.

PEN PALS

President Obama received two letters Tuesday asking for meetings prior to his Thursday jobs speech. Neither appears to have been stamped with “return to sender” — yet.

In one letter, the top two Republicans in the House of Representatives — Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor — requested the president “convene a bipartisan, bicameral meeting of the Congressional leadership so that we may have the opportunity to constructively discuss your proposals.”

When asked about the request Tuesday afternoon at his daily briefing with reporters, White House press secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t rule out some level of consultation by the president in advance of his remarks to a joint session of Congress.

“[T]here has been no shortage of consultations and meetings between this president and leaders in Congress of both parties. And my guess is there will be meetings in the future on these very urgent matters of economic growth, job creation, deficit and debt reduction,” Carney said.

While the GOP leaders made sure to highlight their differences with the president on economic issues — most notably what they see as “excessive, job-destroying regulations” — they also raised possible areas of common ground, such as infrastructure projects and trade agreements.

“While it is important that we continue to debate and discuss our different approaches to job creation, it is also critical that our differences not preclude us from taking action in areas where there is common agreement,” Reps. Boehner and Cantor wrote. “We should not approach this as an all or nothing situation.”

The Republican leaders weren’t the only ones calling for a preview of the president’s plan. The chairs of the Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus also said they want some face time with the president before Thursday night.

“With unemployment at 9.1% nationally– approaching 12% in the Hispanic community, 16.7% in the African American community and with Asian American and Pacific Islanders remaining unemployed for longer periods than any other group– we are in a national crisis. We have learned throughout American history that big, bold action is required to put people back to work and promote economic growth,” the chairs wrote.

As has been the case for much of the year, the president’s jobs plan will have to balance the competing interests of the House GOP majority and his Democratic supporters in Congress if the measure stands any chance of becoming law.

PALIN’S PROBLEM

Two of Sarah Palin’s fellow conservative female Fox News analysts seem to be abandoning her. Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter expressed a bit of frustration Tuesday night with the extended tease Palin has created surrounding the question of “will she or won’t she” run for president.

Ingraham and Coulter also questioned Palin’s seriousness if indeed she is preparing to run for the White House.

Here is an excerpt:

INGRAHAM: . . . people — when I talk to them, they seem to be desperate and hungry more so than ever for real substance beyond kind of the sloganeering and the bumper sticker stuff and Obama is driving the country down. That’s all good, and that’s all true, but that’s like kind of like Paul Ryan or Chris Christie or even today, Mitt Romney. I mean, his jobs plan that he laid out, went after China, big on energy independence. It was very substantive.

COULTER: Right.

INGRAHAM: And I don’t know if that’s going to help him out or not, but I think people want to chew over that stuff. She had to do more of that heavy lifting on the policy stuff, I think, to be taken seriously. I just simply think she’s not all that interested in it. And I like Sarah Palin, but I don’t think she seems all that interested in digging really, really deep on that stuff. That’s just my take on that.

COULTER: No, I agree, and I think — I think she’s terrific at what she does, but I — I tend to agree with you. And I got sick of it with Newt Gingrich, too. You know, fish or cut bait here, because you are ginning up this group of Americans who will not even consider anyone else.

You know, we used to all love Sarah Palin, conservatives like me, for her enemies. I’m starting to dislike her because of her fans. And she does get things wrong. She wouldn’t have to. I think she’s bright, but she doesn’t — her good points do not seem to be in the direction of running for president. Just like Newt Gingrich, you just go ahead and run so we can get this over with.

ON THE TRAIL

Wednesday’s main public event for the Republican candidates is the one mentioned above — the debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., beginning at 8 p.m. ET on MSNBC. But Perry will hold a pair of California meet and greets in Camarillo and San Diego prior to his debate appearance.

For what’s on tap in the days, weeks and months ahead, be sure to check out the NewsHour’s political calendar.

For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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