SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – Rick Perry is looking to make a strong first impression on the national stage. Mitt Romney is hoping for another flawless debate performance. And Michele Bachmann, perhaps, is shooting for relevance in what increasingly appears to be a two-man GOP presidential race.
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. Republicans competing for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama next fall were taking the stage one day before the incumbent Democrat rolls out a jobs-creation plan.
It's the first of three Republican presidential debates scheduled over the next three weeks.
The events promise to shape the GOP presidential race heading into this winter's series of nominating primaries and caucuses. National and state polls show Perry, the Texas governor, and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, competing for the lead. 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.
This would be the first debate appearance for Perry, who has been in the race just a few weeks.
But his 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. Asked whether he would have time to prepare even if he does attend, Perry said, "We'll deal with that when it comes up."
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 GOP 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 it's superior to Perry's, who has held elected office since 1985. 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 knowhow.
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, and the two are competing for the larger share of their votes.
Perhaps foreshadowing debate skirmishing, a group called Keep Conservatives United — unaffiliated with Bachmann's campaign but seemingly working to help her candidacy — ran a TV ad in South Carolina this week that questioned Perry's record on government spending, a key issue with those voters.
Bachmann has a lot on the line.
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 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 Reagan's 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.
It's a dramatic setting. The candidates speak within sight of Reagan's jet, Air Force One, and the 40th president is buried on the grounds. The candidates hope to be seen as heirs to the Reagan legacy, while inevitably being measured against it.
It's often said Republicans are in search of the next Reagan — a charismatic conservative with cross-party appeal — and at the library his presence is inescapable.
NBC News and Politico are sponsoring the debate, which will be moderated by NBC News anchor Brian Williams and Politico editor-in-chief John Harris.