DALLAS ó Rick Perry comes into his third GOP presidential debate as the front-runner once again. But while his poll numbers remain strong ahead of Thursday night’s event, sponsored by Fox News and Google, some of that newcomer shine has come off his campaign. He’s taken his fair share of lumps.|By Tom Benning, The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS ó Rick Perry comes into his third GOP presidential debate as the front-runner once again.
But while his poll numbers remain strong ahead of Thursday night’s event, sponsored by Fox News and Google, some of that newcomer shine has come off his campaign. He’s taken his fair share of lumps.
This debate offers Perry the chance to show he’s prepared for a long, possibly brutal campaign ahead.
“This is the watershed period of the campaign,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a matter of seeing how the campaign equilibrates after its rapid ascent.”
The debate in Orlando is especially significant because it coincides with the Florida straw poll to be held on Saturday.
Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann have downplayed their efforts to win the contest, held as part of the American Conservative Union’s CPAC-FL conference. But Perry has come out swinging, even sending his wife, Anita, for a rare solo appearance on the campaign trail.
“Florida Republicans are looking for a winner,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “They want somebody who can go toe-to-toe with the president.”
And Florida is increasingly seen as crucial if the race comes down to Perry vs. Romney. It’s expected to be the fifth state where Republicans will vote next year, but the first large one, and could give one or the other the edge coming out of the early contests.
As Perry jockeys for a win, here are some issues that will likely come up during the two-hour debate.
Ever since Perry called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie,” Romney has made it clear he wants to challenge the Texas governor to talk about the social insurance program.
That’s doubly true in retiree-heavy Florida.
Romney’s campaign has repeatedly slammed Perry on the topic in recent days. And chief among Romney’s goals is getting Perry to say whether he would make the program be run by the states.
Perry has softened his stance on Social Security of late, making clear he wants to fix the program. And his campaign has fought back, saying on Wednesday that Romney is “again sounding like a Democrat, distorting the truth and trying to scare senior citizens.”
Florida Republicans are likely to embrace Perry’s more moderate views on illegal immigration, MacManus said.
Perry received some backlash during the last debate in Tampa for his support of a Texas law that gives instate tuition to illegal immigrants who promise to pursue citizenship, but the audience was a tea party group.
As Perry further explains his immigration policy, that measure will still likely give some Floridians a pause, MacManus said.
“There’s a fine line on immigration,” she said.
Perry will once again want to talk about job creation ó a record that will resonate in Florida. But Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have all been eager to attack Perry on issues ranging from HPV to taxes.
How will Perry react? He’s shown he won’t back down, but the constant barrage tripped him up a couple times in the last debate.
“He has to get through this without taking on more water,” Henson said.
©2011 The Dallas Morning News