All eyes on Perry and Romney at presidential debate

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – As the media perspire in the outdoor press tent, the candidates are setting up for this evening’s presidential debate at the Reagan Library, where the spotlight is on the two front-runners in the race.

“When you think about who’s going to be the nominee,” veteran campaign strategist Jim Dyke told The Daily Caller, “there’s two people that you’re watching tonight: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.”

“There’s a lot of pressure on Romney and Perry,” echoed Republican political consultant Phillip Stutts. “They need to be aggressive. They don’t need to be tripped up.”

“As the frontrunners,” he added, they “have a lot to lose.”

This is Rick Perry’s first presidential debate. As a result, says Dyke, who advised Haley Barbour before he opted not to run for president, “there are high expectations … That doesn’t mean he has to be incredible. It just means he has to perform in a way that shows he’s able to defend his record, as well as make the case against Barack Obama.”

“You’ve seen Mitt Romney already do that very effectively,” he said, “so that’s as much of the test tonight as a comparison with other candidates.” (RELATED: Debate preview: A pivotal night for Rick Perry)

“Obama is the person constantly on the stage without a podium,” he added.

“Rick Perry’s job tonight to be acceptable,” echoed Republican political consultant and former Romney advisor Alex Castellanos. “He doesn’t need to prove his conservatism, or his stature as governor. Those are givens. He needs to prove he is acceptable to independents in a general election and can therefore beat Barack Obama.”

To some degree, said veteran Republican consultant Mike Murphy, that might just means trying to skate through without making a big gaffe.

“Even though Perry is the candidate in the limelight, he’s going to do his best to avoid it,” said Murphy.

“The only real thing that people are going to be watching for is does Rick Perry make any news. And if he does it’s probably bad for him,” Murphy said.

Castellanos said that Perry just needed to not mess up.

“As long as Rick Perry doesn’t pass the collection plate, shoot a senior citizen or otherwise set his own hair on fire, he should come out of tonight’s debate just fine,” he said.

The past week has seen repeated attacks on Perry from the Republican field. Rick Santorum went after him for not being conservative enough, noting his past enthusiasm for Al Gore and Rudy Giuliani and his support for a mandated HPV vaccine for young girls — a position he has since retracted. And Ron Paul ran an ad attacking the Texas governor earlier this week. It remains to be seen if the candidates will keep up that charge this evening.

“The rumors of a circular firing squad are exaggerated,” said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican political advertising consultant with Targeted Creative Communications, Inc., on the subject. “Candidates may draw distinctions against each other, but the fire will be at Obama. Of course they will have a zinger for each other but won’t be too harsh. The real thing to watch is this will be the first extended look at Perry for a lot of people.”

Dyke agreed, telling TheDC that “usually those things are a little overstated.”

Castellanos said that attacks from other candidates could be a good thing for Perry.

“If he gets attacked tonight, it will validate his position as frontrunner,” Castellanos said. “A few attacks will help him if he responds to them with equanimity, humor, and disciplined strength.”

Mike Murphy predicted that if Perry does get attacked, it will come from people like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, who are seeking more attention for their candidacy. Just getting into it with Perry, being in a “back and forth that goes on beyond the event tonight,” Murphy said, “elevates them.”

There is some pressure on Bachmann to put on a strong showing tonight. Her polling numbers have fallen, despite a win in the Ames Straw Poll, and this weekend her campaign saw a staff shakeup.

“I think there’s increased pressure on her,” Dyke explained. “When a candidate is not well disciplined, typically that pressure forces an error. That’ll be something to watch tonight with her: how she’s responding to the sense that she needs to make something happen.” (RELATED: Huntsman has a cold ahead of debate)

Bachmann’s first debate in New Hampshire when she announced her candidacy gave her a huge bump in the polls. At her second debate in Iowa, she showed she could stick up for herself during a heated exchange with Tim Pawlenty.

Perry appears to have peeled away much of Bachmann’s tea party base, but that does not mean she cannot go after him.

“He’s got a much broader base,” Dyke told TheDC. “He’s a much more credible candidate in the eyes of most voters, so her challenge is to contrast herself without becoming less credible.”

At the end of the day, however, consultants say all eyes will be on the two front-runners.

“Republican primary voters are going to take the safest route that they believe will beat Obama,” Stutts predicted.

“And right now the safest route is with either Romney or Perry.”