Tomorrow night's Republican presidential debate is likely to be the harshest yet. Not only are the GOP candidates expected to blast President Obama on the economy, job creation, expansion of federal power, and other issues, they are also likely to strike aggressively at each other.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be the top target. He is the newest major candidate in the race and has yet to show he can withstand the rough-and-tumble of a national campaign. It will be Perry's first experience in a presidential debate, the first of three in the next three weeks for the GOP. His record is also only minimally known to most Americans, including most Republicans, so this is a key definitional moment for him. And his rivals, especially former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, will be trying to define him in negative ways.
One line of attack will be Perry's claim to have presided over a relatively robust Texas economy while the rest of America was suffering from a serious downturn. Romney, a former businessman and investor, has made the economy his top issue, and his goal will be to take Perry down a few pegs. He is likely to argue that a large number of low-wage jobs were created under Perry's governorship, but not the kind of high-paying jobs that Americans want. Romney is also likely to attack Perry for being too lenient on illegal immigration. Since Perry's entry into the race, Romney has slipped in some polls from being the GOP front-runner to few percentage points behind the Texas governor.
For his part, Perry needs to avoid any major gaffes that would suggest he's not ready for prime time. He also wants to show he is a strong but not extreme conservative and would be an effective counterpoint to President Obama. "We don't need a nominee who's going to blur the differences between themselves and Barack Obama," Perry said in New Hampshire Saturday. "We're going to have a nominee who draws a clear contrast."
Perry has also shown a willingness to take on his opponents. In South Carolina yesterday, he referred directly to Romney when he said, "There's no one who's going to be sitting on that stage [at the debate] who has the record of job creation I have. There's one in particular who's created jobs all around the world. While he was the governor of Massachusetts he didn't create many jobs."
Bachmann is also expected to criticize Perry in tomorrow's debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. She is likely to portray him as a weak conservative and remind Republicans that he is a former Democrat as she tries to undermine his support among conservative Tea Party activists, with whom Bachmann is popular but who Perry is courting.
Up to now, the GOP debates have been largely polite affairs in which the candidates went easy on each other. In all likelihood, that happy-face approach is about to end.