Texas Gov. Rick Perry tests his debating skills Wednesday, steeling himself for assaults from fellow Republicans after he shot to the top of the field of opposition party candidates battling for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
Perry's appearance for the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library _ still not certain because of his return to Texas to deal with one of the most destructive wildfires in the state's history _ would be his first opportunity to mix it up with other Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who polls show as his top challengers going into this winter's series of state nominating primaries and caucuses.
Perry, who has cast his message toward the small government, low tax tea party wing of the Republican party, has rocketed to the top in national polls, taking the lead from Romney who had been the front-runner. Bachmann _ who also caters to the tea party _ has seen her support wither since Perry entered the race the same day she won an important test vote last month in Iowa.
In the first of three Republican presidential debates scheduled over the next three weeks, Perry, who has little debating experience, confronts an urbane Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and businessman, Bachmann, the scrappy Minnesota congresswoman, and six other lesser-known Republicans.
They will all have a ready target as the White House leaks out details of Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday in which he will outline a play for creating jobs in a nation where unemployment is stuck at 9.1 percent. The struggling U.S. economy is the premier issue in the coming election.
Perry will face intense scrutiny, in part because he doesn't have extensive experience in the formal give-and-take of the debate format 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.
Upon entering the nominating race, Perry immediately jolted the Republican electorate with his Texas swagger and speaking style that is reminiscent of former President George W. Bush. He stirred controversy with statements that there are "gaps" in the theory of evolution, questioning whether humans play a role in climate change and referring to Social Security, the federal pension system, 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, had 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 faces Perry as the former Massachusetts governor steps 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 will be 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.
Bachmann will be trying to regain traction among the tea party backers who have turned to Perry. He has vowed to make the federal government "inconsequential" in the lives of Americans.
Bachmann, therefore, has a lot on the line in Wednesday's debate.
Since she won the Iowa Straw Poll 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 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. He finished second to Bachmann in the Iowa vote.
In recent days, Paul increasingly has gone after Perry, putting out a TV ad suggesting that Perry wants to unravel the Reagan's conservative 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.