Republican candidates have been campaigning for the party's 2012 presidential nomination for months now, facing off in debates, straw polls, and fundraising races. Well, "ignore all that," says Ken Rudin at NPR. "The battle for the GOP nomination starts in earnest" on Wednesday night, in the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. The "ever-magic Reagan name" isn't the only reason this debate will stand out from the "endless series of Republican clashes," says Jonathan Bernstein in The Washington Post. It's also the first debate to include the new GOP frontrunner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and marks the first time in the race that Perry and former frontrunner Mitt Romney will share the stage. What will happen? Here, four predictions:
1. Rick Perry will be tested
This isn't just Perry's introduction to a national audience, says Ken Walsh at U.S. News. It's also his first presidential debate. And, as the new frontrunner, "Perry will be the top target" during what promises to be the season's harshest debate yet. Perry showing up at all is "an unusual spectacle," says Molly Ball at Politico. He's only debated four times in his decade as governor of Texas, and while he's not a great debater, he "rarely makes a mistake and almost always manages to win by not losing." All the recent stories questioning his smarts have actually helped Perry by "lowering expectations," says Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. To win, he just has to "put in a credible performance" and come off as "serious, likable, and viable."
2. Nobody will "pull a Pawlenty"
Reagan's famous 11th Commandment — "thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" — will be thrown out the window Wednesday night, says Mike Harris in the Ventura County Star. That's especially true for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who's fighting for her political life after Perry's ascension diminished her from viable nominee to second-tier wannabe, says David Corn at Mother Jones. Bachmann has been slapping at Perry from afar, and the worst thing she could do is duck a head-to-head fight with him, as Tim Pawlenty fatally did with Mitt Romney in an earlier debate. Romney can't risk "pulling a Pawlenty," either, says The Washington Post's Theissen. He's also been "taking shots at Perry," and he'll have to repeat them to Perry's face.
3. Everyone will attack Perry and Romney
This is already essentially a race between Romney and Perry, and their "obvious debate strategy is to survive without any damage," says The Washington Post's Jonathan Bernstein. So "you probably won't see them attack each other." If any of the other candidates still think they have a shot, their "strategic imperative" is to "take out one of the frontrunners." That means Jon Huntsman tries to knock off Romney, while all the other "fringe candidates" target Perry.
4. Everyone will namecheck Reagan
With the debate at the Reagan Library, "everyone who is participating will be trying to out-Reagan one another," says Jason Linkins at The Huffington Post. In fact, it's already started in an odd Lone Star showdown: Rep. Ron Paul just released an ad slamming Perry as a "cheerleader" who "helped lead Al Gore's campaign to undo the Reagan revolution" in 1988. In a first, Perry struck back, noting Paul's "Reagan-bashing" letter from 1987. Let's be clear: "Reagan is to conservatives what Martin Luther King Jr. is to the Civil Rights Movement," says Tony Lee at Human Events. So any candidates who fail to honor Reagan's legacy will lose, big time.