Wednesday night, GOP 2012 presidential contenders will meet at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California in a political debate sponsored by Politico and NBC News. This is not the first face-off among Republican hopefuls—last month they debated in Ames, Iowa. However, it is the first debate since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race. Since announcing his candidacy in mid-August, Perry has skyrocketed to the top of the field. He shook up the dense pack, stealing social conservative and Tea Party support from Rep. Michele Bachmann while challenging former Gov. Mitt Romney’s on who has a better chance of defeating President Obama in the general election. [See photos of the GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail.]
This debate presents a make or break moment for lesser known candidates—it is one of the few remaining chances they have to elevate themselves to the top tier before lack of financial or poll support forces them out of the race. For instance, former Gov. Jon Huntsman has gained media coverage for his moderate views that contrast the hard-right line the rest of the field takes on issues like evolution and global warming. But his poll numbers remain extremely low (somewhere in the 1 percent range on the national level) and this debate might be Huntsman's last opportunity to capture the attention of the Republican electorate. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and former pizza magnate Herman Cain too must prove their relevance, while Rep. Ron Paul, relevant in the sense that his libertarian views have become much more mainstream, needs to also break the mold of "fringe candidate." [ See editorial cartoons about the GOP candidates.]
The stakes are high for the top rung as well. For Perry, this is his first debate on a national stage—an important test to how he could eventually stand up to Obama. For Romney, no longer the only front-runner, it might be time to abandon his "play it safe" strategy and launch a more aggressive campaign. And Bachmann, whose Ames Straw Poll victory was overshadowed by Perry’s entrance, will need to prove herself a strong enough candidate—stronger than Perry—to attract not just the most conservative members of her party, but the mainstream vote as well. There is also the question of whether GOP participants while set aside their generalized attacks on Obama so they can go after one another.
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Previously: Is Michele Bachmann Still a Top-Tier Candidate?