It's being billed as the first major Republican debate, with two front runners with very different styles going head-to-head -- and a third contender struggling to keep her footing. So when you're getting out the popcorn and heading for the couch to watch the Big Event, here are five things to be on the lookout for:
1. America, meet Rick Perry. It's already a cliché to say "all eyes will be on Perry tonight," but in this case (well in most cases) the cliché is true. As we like to say in Alabama, folks will be taking the measure of the man. This is his debut on a national stage. But don't expect a razzle-dazzle offense or heroics in the end zone, which we don't expect from Texas A&M, Perry's alma mater, anyway. All he needs to do is hang onto the ball and deliver a solid performance.
His advisers are saying they see this as a chance to introduce him to the nation, and they're planning to save the punches for subsequent debates. They're also are trying to lower expectations by insisting Perry doesn't enjoy debating, hasn't participated in many debates and that it's not a natural forum for him. That's a good political strategy, since short of a complete offensive and defensive breakdown, he will clear that low bar.
2. Will Mitt Romney engage? The day after, with mixed reviews, the former front-runner needs to make the case tonight that he is the best-qualified candidate to create jobs -- and be believable. He has to get off the economics lectures and convince voters he is working for THEM, not corporate America--that he understands Big Business, but isn't in its back pocket.
That's historically a problem for Republicans who push for more a favorable business environment as a way to create jobs -- an approach that's a heck of a lot harder to sell than stimulus plans, spending packages and construction projects favored by Democrats. Can Romney make his case and find some kind of connection with voters? And will Perry and Jon Huntsman try to throw him off by continuing to bash his record in Massachusetts? Probably not in Perry's case, but look for Huntsman to continue his attacks (assuming his just-announced sinus infection isn't debilitating), as he courts adoring media coverage to get his poll numbers above 1 percent.
3. Conventional wisdom that Perry has the most to lose tonight is wrong. With Perry's advisers craftily setting a low bar, he should be able to meet or surpass expectations. You could instead argue that it's Michele Bachmann who has the most to lose. If she doesn't have a strong performance tonight, she's in trouble. She's seen her support plummet since Perry got in the race, and with, she has to show she still belongs in the top tier.
How will she carve out space in a race that her former campaign manager Ed Rollins already has said is a two-person, Perry-Romney matchup? She needs to demonstrate that tonight. But I'm told not to expect her to attack the man who's stealing her support.
4. So if Romney and Bachmann don't go after Perry, who will? Or will anyone? My money is on Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Both already are calling into question his conservative credentials. And Santorum just told me, in a long chat before he was heading to the Reagan Library, that "there's a lot there" to attack -- and that he intends to do it tonight (assuming he can get a word in from his expected post "at the end of the stage"). He then proceeded to tick off so many issues I had trouble keeping up: Excess spending in Texas. Immigration policy. The HPV vaccine for teens.
And don't even get Santorum started about Perry's prior support for Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. "Who is this guy?" Santorum asked of Perry. "He's not a Reagan Republican." In fact, Santorum said, Perry only became a Republican because he felt the political climate shifting to the Right.
As for Ron Paul, he has said flatly that Perry isn't a conservative--and if he and Santorum pursue that tonight, this debate could be fun--especially if Perry decides to shoots back.
5. Will immigration emerge as an issue? This is an area where Rick Perry is vulnerable with the base and is perhaps the best way for other conservatives to discredit him. His opposition to the border fence and his insistence that the children of illegal immigrants get in-state tuition may play well in the general (and with a key demographic), but it could give him problems in the primary. As one Republican strategist told me, look for opponents to frame the issue of immigration as both a burden on government spending AND on economic growth--so that without a proper solution, turning the economy around will be even more difficult.