Republican debate preview: Rick Perry’s first big test

Rachel Rose Hartman

Texas Gov. Rick Perry will make his presidential debate debut tonight, competing with seven other Republican candidates on the eve of President Obama's address to Congress about his plan to create jobs.

There were questions about whether Perry would cancel his appearance because of wildfires in Texas, but Perry's office confirmed Tuesday that he will attend the NBC News/Politico debate, held at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Perry will join Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Obama's speech Thursday on jobs and unemployment has prompted some of the candidates to release their own economic plans, on which they will likely be questioned during tonight's forum, which begins at 8 p.m. EST. There will be live coverage at The Ticket.

But that's only one of the many tests the candidates will face.

Perry's debate skills Because it is Perry's first debate, much of the discussion has centered on whether Perry--whose debate skills haven't been tested at length during his political career--is a poor debater. Perry will likely be challenged for the first time by his competitors on his record in Texas, including his positions on immigration, and the viewpoints he expressed in his book "Fed Up!"--such as the ways in which he has argued the Constitution should be changed.

[Read more about how Republicans can attack Perry here.]

Jobs Romney and Huntsman have each released a jobs plan, but their plans have also given their opponents something to criticize at the debate. Even the candidates without detailed proposals will be judged on what they say about this issue, what concrete ideas they offer and how they contrast themselves with the president.

To attack or not attack There will be some pressure to obey Reagan's "Eleventh Commandment" ("Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican") in the library of the 40th president and in the presence of his widow, Nancy Reagan. Most of the feuding among the candidates has so far been carried out via press releases and speeches--including Perry's recent slam of Romney's jobs plan. Will the candidates wage these battles face to face? Tim Pawlenty's decision during the second presidential debate to walk back his "Obamneycare" attacks against Romney was regarded as a disastrous move for the former Minnesota governor. Pawlenty was marked as gutless and pulled out of the race last month after a poor showing at the Iowa straw poll.

Frontrunner status Just this week, Bachmann's campaign manager, Ed Rollins (who has since decided to take a backseat role for her campaign), described the 2012 election as a "Perry-Romney race" with Bachmann in third-place. Tonight's debate could shake up that order or solidify it.

Bachmann's momentum Bachmann has shone in the previous two presidential debates. If Bachmann performs well at tonight's debate, she could recapture some of her lost momentum. If she doesn't, her campaign could sink even further.

Romney in a post-Perry world Tonight is Mitt Romney's most important moment since losing his front-runner status in the race. Will he change his campaign strategy by directly criticizing Perry?

Tea party favorite Bachmann has been regarded as the national tea party favorite, and it's unclear if Perry can knock her off that pedestal. Perry in recent weeks has issued edicts that have found some favor within the movement, including his book's criticism of social security as a "monstrous lie" and a Ponzi scheme (though he has attempted to walk back that criticism).

The other candidates Tonight's debate is significant for the frontrunners, but the stakes are at least as high for the rest of the field.  In recent weeks, Gingrich's campaign trajectory has plummeted and candidates like Santorum and Cain are struggling to register with voters.