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Pressure On Perry To Perform At Debate On Romney's Turf

<p>Texas Gov. Rick Perry can't afford more fumbles like his performance at the Orlando debate which helped Mitt Romney regain frontrunner status.</p>
Phelan M. Ebenhack

Texas Gov. Rick Perry can't afford more fumbles like his performance at the Orlando debate which helped Mitt Romney regain frontrunner status.

Can Texas Gov. Rick Perry turn in a performance at Tuesday night's presidential debate in New Hampshire that makes his past debate meltdowns and missteps things of the past?

That's a primary question for many of those who will watch the Bloomberg News-Washington Post debate at Dartmouth College at 8 pm ET. Bloomberg TVwill carry the debate.

Perry, who entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination late and at the top as the immediate front-runner, quickly fell back from that position, partly because of his snake bitten debate performances.

In particular, there was his stunningly bumbling attack on Romney in the last debate which raised legitimate questions as to whether Perry was ready for the unique demands of a presidential race let alone the White House.

Fortunately for Perry's supporters, the flaws exposed in that moment might be fixable by more debate prep and rest. Then again, maybe not.

Meanwhile, the debate occurs at a moment in the campaign when Mitt Romney once again appears to hold, if only tenuously, the Republican race's commanding heights.

First, major national polls show him as the frontrunner once again. Second, Tuesday night's debate is taking place in New Hampshire where he enjoys a significant lead over the rest of the Republican field, in part because he's virtually a native son as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts.

Third, the debate is in his area of greatest perceived strength, the economy. Romney has claimed that his experience as the co-founder of a very successful private-equity company makes him a better choice than Perry and anyone in the rest of the Republican field, and President Obama, to fix the worst economy since the Depression.

In short, Romney will have what amounts to the home field advantage Tuesday night. Members of his campaign team may not shout "Our house" as they enter the auditorium but who could blame them for feeling that way?

If anything is a risk for Romney in this debate, it would be a mistake born of overconfidence. But he has shown himself so far to be a very disciplined candidate, even more so than in 2008.

Romney can be expected to mention his 59-point plan for economic growth at least once during the debate. It would be surprising if even Romney knows all 59 points by heart although he probably could get a lot closer to getting them all than any other candidate with a 59-point plan.

But it's an impressive number meant to drive home the point that he has more acumen on economic and business matters than anyone else in the race, including Obama. Or, more precisely, especially Obama.

An interesting dynamic to watch for will be how much Romney and Perry go after each other.

Now that Romney is again the frontrunner, expect Perry and others on the stage to attack the former Massachusetts governor.

As the frontrunner earlier in the race, Romney essentially never looked back, ignoring the rest of the field and keeping his withering attacks trained firmly on Obama.

Romney could resume that frontrunner's strategy in the debate. But all indications are that Perry will likely attack Romney as a closet Obamanaut in the Republican Party. Recent Perry videos have alleged as much.

A strong counter for Romney to the Obama-lite charge would be to continue fiercely attacking the president.

But Romney probably can't limit his response to that. Despite being a damaged candidate, Perry still has big campaign war chest to spend on attacking Romney which makes him dangerous to the Republican frontrunner, especially if Romney ignores Perry's attacks.

Romney didn't only regain the frontrunner status because of Perry debate misfires but because of the Texas governor's controversial positions on Social Security and illegal immigrants.

Perry has called the entitlement program a Ponzi scheme that should be turned over to states and has defended his support for providing in-state tuition in Texas to young illegal immigrants.

Romney has attacked Perry on these issues to great effect. So expect those attacks to continue, especially since they can be so easily weaved into Romney's economic arguments.

The greatest surprise heading into Tuesday night's debate is Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive who is tied to or near Romney in some polls. Much of Cain's gain comes from Perry's loss of voters from the GOP's the ABM (Anyone but Mitt) bloc.

Few serious students of American politics, however, expect Cain's boomlet to propel him to the nomination. His relative lack of a solid political organization and financial bundlers compared with Romney and Perry are the limiting factors.

Still, Cain is a forceful speaker brimming with confidence, qualities that always gain attention and often a following. He also has his catchy 9-9-9 fiscal plan — a nine percent national sales tax and a nine percent top income tax rate on personal and corporate income.

True, most experts say it would cause deficits and the debt to soar and end a century of progressive taxation. But it's like a $9.99 pizza, it's memorable.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas comes to the debate fresh from winning the Values Voter Summit presidential straw poll.

While he has a very loyal support base, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota can tell him just how much it means to a campaign to have won a straw poll, having won the one in Ames, Iowa herself a few weeks back. But just as fast as she rose, the air has come out of her balloon.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has actually been doing better in some statewide polls as others have faded. But much of his increase has likely come from name recognition as much as anything. He has little realistic chance of being his party's nominee.

The same can be said of the former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Both were long shots from the start, both are long shots now. They appear to be campaigning for something other than the nomination at this point.

Expect the candidates to be asked for more details on how they would fix the economy. Particularly, what would they do to immediately increase jobs especially since economists say repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes regulations won't create jobs near-term.

Also, expect the candidates to be asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Cain, for instance, has already dismissed the protesters. Will the others follow suit or will they show more empathy?

Because the debate's focus is the economy, it doesn't seem like a natural place to discuss the hunting camp with the racist place name Perry's family once leased, or Romney's Mormon religion being called a "cult" by the pastor who introduced Perry at the Values Voter Summit.

On the other hand, those controversies are fresh in the mind and this is the first debate since those issues burst into consciousness. So expect the moderators to find some way to shoehorn them in.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.