SIMI VALLEY, California – Texas Gov. Rick Perry is looking to make a strong first impression on the national stage Wednesday when the newly minted front-runner is scheduled to make his first appearance in a Republican presidential debate one day before President Barack Obama unveils his jobs-creation plan.
It's the first of three Republican presidential debates scheduled over the next three weeks. The events promise to shape the Republican presidential race heading into this winter's series of nominating primaries and caucuses. National and state polls show Perry, who has been in the race just a few weeks, and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, competing for the lead. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who was running strong in polls earlier this summer, is trailing, along with no less than a half dozen other lesser-known Republicans.
With the national unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent, the economy was likely to dominate Wednesday's debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
But Perry's attendance was in question. Aides said Tuesday that he plans to debate. But Perry, who was in Texas dealing with one of the most destructive wildfire outbreaks in the state's history, left open the possibility that he may skip the debate.
Should Perry attend as expected, he will face a bright spotlight in part because he doesn't have extensive debate experience and is competing in his first national campaign. He's a natural politician, but aides privately acknowledge that Perry doesn't count debating among his strongest skills. In 10 years as governor, Perry has debated other candidates just four times -- and last year, he didn't debate his general election opponent at all.
Perry entered the race and immediately jolted the Republican electorate with a shot of energy. But he found himself in hot water for controversial remarks, including suggesting there are "gaps" in the theory of evolution, questioning whether humans play a role in climate change and referring to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. The debate will test whether he can withstand on-camera questioning or barbs from his competitors over those issues.
Romney, who led the field before Perry became a candidate, has turned in two strong debate performances largely by staying above the fray while his rivals sparred onstage.
This time, he may not have that luxury.
Romney is expected to come face to face with Perry just as the former Massachusetts governor has been stepping up his efforts to contrast himself with his chief rival. Romney has been emphasizing his private sector business experience and suggesting that it's superior to Perry's, who has held elected office since 1985 and is Texas' longest serving governor. Romney also has started drawing distinctions with Perry on immigration: Romney opposed legislation to allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition breaks, while Texas universities allow illegal immigrants to receive those discounts.
Romney was debating a day after unveiling a major economic plan that he is using to sell himself as the candidate with the most business know-how.
For Bachmann, the debate comes as she's looking to regain traction she lost when Perry entered the race; both candidates attract support from tea party activists who favor limited government and lower taxes, and the two are competing for the larger share of their votes.
Bachmann has a lot on the line in Wednesday's debate.
Since she won a key test vote in Iowa on Aug. 13, Bachmann has faced questions about the true strength of her campaign. Her campaign manager and deputy manager have left her staff. And she's fallen in early state and national polls.
Among others also planning to be on stage were Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has called his rivals extreme; as well as ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Georgia businessman Herman Cain, all of whom have struggled for attention.
Another candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has made waves in recent weeks, coming in a close second in the Iowa straw poll.
In recent days, Paul increasingly has gone after Perry, putting out a TV ad suggesting that Perry wants to unravel the Reagan legacy. It drew a rebuke from Perry's campaign, which said in a statement: "Like President Reagan, Gov. Perry has cut taxes and freed employers from government regulations that kill jobs."
All that is fitting given the debate's location.
Wednesday will be the third time the hilltop library -- a shrine to all things Reagan -- will provide the backdrop for a Republican presidential debate. Former first lady Nancy Reagan will welcome the candidates.