The Obama speech kerfuffle has been resolved. The wildfire-related cancellation risk has been averted. The Rick Perry debate is upon us. Sure, the other GOP candidates will be on stage, but there's no better way to describe tonight's exchange. Since his dramatic entrance into the race last month, Perry star has rocketed skyward, supplanting Mitt Romney by attaining frontrunner status. He's accomplished all of this without doing one significant mainstream media interview, and without engaging directly with any of his rivals. That all changes tonight. With all eyes on Perry, what must he accomplish? And what are his competitors hoping to achieve?
Perry - Republican primary voters view him as likeable, conservative, and competent. He needs to affirm this congealing perception with a sturdy, though not necessarily remarkable, performance. In some ways, tonight will serve as his first impression, and all the cliches apply. If he falters, he could ignite some of the questions sympathetic potential supporters may have shoved onto the back-burner up to this point. If he does no harm, or even turns in a good showing, he'll cement his stature as top dog. Though Perry may be tempted to go on the attack -- he's an outspoken, brash guy -- he may be better served to ignore the inevitable barbs that come his way, and instead focus intently on describing his outstanding record as Governor of Texas. If he stays on message, and directs the lion's share of his hostile fire at the man he's aiming to replace, Rick Perry will have a good night. A decent showing will also mute some of the persistent whispers that he's a poor debater. We'll see for ourselves in a few hours, won't we?
Romney - His campaign says they've adopted a "don't panic" mentality vis-a-vis Perry's fast start. We'll see if Romney exemplifies that approach tonight. He should. I'm not convinced Mitt needs to turn his rhetorical guns loose on Perry just yet. If the former Massachusetts Governor reprises his strong, technocratic, anti-Obama performances of the last few GOP debates, he'll take another important step toward pushing this race to a two-man sprint. Perry sometimes gets himself into trouble with unforced errors and over-the-top bravado (think "treason"). If Romney is smart, which I think he is, he'll let Bachmann and Ron Paul tee-off on Perry. Meanwhile, he'll coolly observe and take measure of Perry's responses, filing various lessons away for the parade of upcoming debates and forums. Optional drinking game: Take a shot every time Romney attacks "career politicians." He might as well illuminate a neon sign reading "Rick Perry" every time he does so.
Bachmann - Unlike Romney's campaign, Team Bachmann may be inching closer to the panic button. Rick Perry has blunted much of the momentum Bachmann enjoyed coming off of her Ames Straw Poll win, and given his strong allure with Tea Party voters and other conservatives, he represents an existential threat to her candidacy. Last time out, she sparred sharply with Tim Pawlenty. The exchange seemed like a draw in real time, but T-Paw dropped out of the race a few days later. With her poll numbers sliding, Bachmann can't afford to allow the Perry vs. Romney narrative -- which was astonishingly perpetuated by her erstwhile campaign chief -- to gain further steam. She's going to have to reclaim some of the magic of her New Hampshire debut while distinguishing herself, in a positive way, from Rick Perry. Tall task.
Huntsman - The guy just can't catch a break. First, the wild White House/Boehner/Jobs Speech fistfight broke out on the day he tried to roll out his economic plan. The battle royale consumed almost all of that news cycle's political oxygen, and pushed Hunstman off to the side. Then, Michael Moore endorsed him. Huntsman needs Republican primary voters to hear about his plan on taxes, regulation, jobs, and growth. For all the RINO pejoratives that are heaped upon the former Utah Governor (some of which are self-defeatingly provoked and richly deserved), his economic plan really is quite good, and very conservative. Huntsman's top goal this evening should be to re-introduce his plan in as much detail as possible. Republican voters might be surprised by how much they like it. Second look? Hey, he's gotta do something if he's going to fulfill his bold prediction.
Paul - Ron Paul's campaign has been hounding Rick Perry this week, drawing attention to (then-Democrat) Perry's one-time support for Al Gore when he ran for president in 1988. It will be interesting to see if Paul will continue to pursue this theme in person tonight. As a fellow Texan, he might do some of the other candidates a few favors by poking holes in Perry's strong reputation as a chief executive.
Cain - Since his outstanding performance in South Carolina in early May, Herman Cain has failed to gain much traction as a candidate. Not to pigeonhole him, but I wonder if Cain might help himself and his party by directly confronting some of the anti-Tea Party racial bile spewing from the Congressional Black Caucus in recent days. The crowd would eat it up, everyone on stage would be grateful, and Cain would be the perfect messenger, for obvious reasons. The "racist Tea Party" smear is pernicious, and must be forcefully rebutted.
Santorum - The former Pennsylvania Senator seemed most energized trading barbs with Ron Paul on foreign policy during the last debate. Round two tonight?
Gingrich - Newt drew some cheers from the crowd for pushing back hard against the moderators in the recent Fox News debate in Iowa. That trick would delight conservative audiences even more if his ire is directed at the MSNBC crew.
Tonight's debate airs live from the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA at 8pm ET on MSNBC, in conjunction with Politico. Townhall and Hot Air will team up for live coverage on our open thread and Twitter page, which will go live on the Tipsheet and homepage shortly before the debate commences. Stay tuned after the event for comprehensive reaction from the Townhall team.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography