Debate preview: A pivotal night for Rick Perry

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Debates matter.

Okay, they sometimes matter.

Just ask Tim Pawlenty, whose failure to rise to the occasion and challenge Mitt Romney during the New Hampshire debate seemed to seal his fate.

Tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library will kick off a series of frequent debates over the next month, or so — so it is important for the candidates to set the right tone.

It will also be the first debate that new front runner Rick Perry will participate in. Tonight could be pivotal for Perry, and the field.

Here’s what I’ll be watching for …

Michele Bachmann won the Ames, Iowa straw poll, but didn’t see much of a bounce (thanks to Perry’s entry into the race that same day). Her campaign desperately needs a shot in the arm. Bachmann is a feisty debater — as was evidenced by the skirmish she and Pawlenty engaged in during the last debate in Iowa.

My guess is she will go after Rick Perry tonight.

Fending off a female opponent can be fraught with danger (as Rick Lazio famously learned). Having recently dispatched Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a Texas gubernatorial primary, Perry has experience in this area. But Bachmann is stylistically different from Hutchison. For one thing, she will be hitting Perry from the right.

Bachmann might just be prepping for tonight by reading Michelle Malkin’s post about Rick Perry. (Perry’s immigration stance may be the best issue Bachmann could exploit.)

It is also predictable that Perry will aggressively try to hit Romney over his questionable jobs record, while Romney may push back, hitting Perry on immigration, and citing Perry’s past status as an “Al Gore” Democrat. And if Perry dares mention “RomneyCare,” you can be sure Romney will remind us that Perry once sent a flattering letter to Hillary Clinton, praising “HillaryCare.

Some commentators believe Perry must have a great performance tonight — but my take is that doesn’t have to “win,” per se — he just can’t lose.

If he does well, Perry could essentially cement the notion that he is the most conservative candidate who can actually win, effectively making this a two-man race with Romney. If he doesn’t perform well, expect to hear more about Sarah Palin and Chris Christie.