What to Watch in the Reagan Library GOP Debate: It’s Perry’s to Lose and Bachmann’s Last Chance

Tonight’s debate is the first of three September debates between Republican candidates. The Republican race has been played down for awhile of weeks as the economic news and Obama’s falling poll numbers have dominated the news, but that doesn’t change the fact that this upcoming debate is a possible game changer for most of the candidates on the stage. There are a number of conflicting dynamics and strategies that will be on display for the two-hour festival of Republicanism that are worth watching and likely noting for each candidate.

Rick Perry: Winning by Not Losing

A recent article on Rick Perry has noted that for all of his folksy charm and Texas wisdom the governor has never been a particularly formidable debater. Given that he’s often avoided or just downright refused to debate his opponents makes this one of the highest stakes debates in his short national political career. Perry has become the frontrunner by avoiding blatant flaws unlike his opponents: Tim Pawlenty, spineless; Mitt Romney, too aloof; Michelle Bachmann, too extreme. The press has written off Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and the most popular man to never get any respect Ron Paul. Huntsman we’ll address later. Governor Perry is not likely to lose his leading role, but the real question will be whether or not he’ll embrace it. Sources say that he’s going to come into this debate knowing that he has nothing to be defensive about given how quickly he’s risen to the top. However, will Romney let him get away with that?

Mitt Romney: Switching Up the Game

Ironically, it’s the rise of Perry that might finally give the public a chance to see what Romney is made of in this campaign. For the entire year heading into the Iowa straw poll,  Romney was the default frontrunner because he was less flawed than the rest of the field, and heavy hitters like Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie had already said they weren’t going to get in on the 2012 action. His overly cautious strategy could only work for so long, though. Look for Romney to go on the offensive tonight against the political freight train that is Perry. Perry’s rise has forced the Romney campaign to re-evaluate their cautious ways and realize that this debate has to be engaged fully or he’ll be done before the first ballot is counted in January. The question for him is does he have the backbone to go after Perry or will he pull a “Pawlenty” and attack Perry only to back away from his statements as soon as he’s asked to clarify. His campaign depends on which approach he sticks with.

Michelle Bachmann: Last Chance

Michelle Bachmann has not had a good week. Reports of her campaign staff falling apart doesn’t look good to potential donors and she’s always had a mixed performance when it comes to debates. The race for the Republican nomination has boiled down to Romney vs Perry but Bachmann has to keep herself relevant in some way, shape or form in this debate before she careens into Ron Paul territory. How will she pull this off? Bachmann has to do something that she has so far not done well: Look presidential. She has to sound like she’s running for the most important job in the land and not leading a pep rally against that Kenyan Communist Barack Obama. Since winning the Iowa Straw polls she’s steadily declined in the GOP nomination race. To make matters worse, if she fails to come off as anything other than Tea Party cheerleader she’s not even going to be part of anyone’s vice president discussions. A strong dose of policy solutions is Michelle’s best way to stave off inevitable irrelevance after this debate.

Tim Huntsman: Being Tim Pawlenty

The reason that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was a crucial part of the campaign until he dropped out was that he was the wild-card of the race. Everyone knew that the soft spoken candidate could bottom out early, but his pedigree as a governor, his successes in working across the aisle and easy going demeanor also meant that if he had a quick learning curve he could challenge Romney for the nomination. Of course, he has failed miserably. Now that wild card guy could be John Huntsman. Huntsman doesn’t do well in polls. He’s not nearly conservative enough for the Tea Party crowd, and he hasn’t raised a ton of money. However, the press likes him. He’s sounded like the kind of moderate fixer that independents are looking for, and if there are lingering doubts in the GOP electorate about Romney or Perry he might be able to score some points. Huntsman’s ceiling isn’t as high as Pawlenty’s was. No one thinks he can be the nominee. But a strong performance as the man of reason with a bit more of a pulse than Romney might catapult him after this debate in a way similar to John McCain or John Kerry years ago.

The Rest of the Pack: Running for VP

Ron Paul will never be on the presidential ticket of any major party of the United States and he runs primarily because he believes that Americans deserve a choice. Which is fine, but at this point he and the other less than 10%-ers in the race are looking to justify their fundraising dollars and maybe get a job in a forthcoming Republican administration. Both Cain and Santorum will attempt to keep relevant in this debate, but what they should really be doing is allying themselves with the candidates that would most likely hire them. Santorum would be a reasonable vice president pick for Romney who still catches side-eyes from the conservative base of the party. A Santorum vice president would appease that base and maybe help him in states like Virginia or Pennsylvania in a presidential run. Along the same lines, Cain would be a possible VP pick for Perry, adding much diversity to his ticket (Perry’s relationship with Latinos and blacks in Texas isn’t too hot) and giving him a firebrand to balance out his own folksiness.

Each of these campaigners has something to gain and something to lose after tomorrow night. This is just the first of three forums this month. But campaigns often work on momentum and if one of them stumbles or pulls off an upset in the Reagan Library debates the entire landscape of the election could change.

This article first appeared in Loop21.com under the headline “Five things to know about the GOP California debate.”

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