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The most important week of Rick Perry’s campaign

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For Texas Gov. Rick Perry, this week will show the kind of political stuff he’s made of.

Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry of Texas gestures during a speech at the Values Voter Summit on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

After a soaring start to his campaign, September was far less kind to Perry. A series of fair-to-poor debate performances, coupled with negative press over his immigration position and a hunting camp owned by his family, side-tracked Perry and handed the title of “frontrunner” back to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But, a combination of fundraising prowess (Perry raised $17 million in the third quarter) and luck (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision not to run) have given Perry a second chance to make a better impression with Republican primary voters.

That opportunity begins in earnest Tuesday night at an economic-focused debate sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Perry will also deliver a policy speech on energy and job creation next Friday.

No one disagrees that Perry must be better than he was at a debate in Orlando late last month where he looked totally outclassed by Romney. But how high the bar is for Perry is a matter of opinion.

“He needs an outstanding debate performance,” said California-based Republican consultant Rob Stutzman of Perry. “He needs to demonstrate that he has it within him to be the best debater on the stage, and he’ll score major points if he can figure out how to do what no one has done yet — knock the unflappable Mitt off his game.”

Sally Bradshaw, a longtime political adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, suggested that Perry “doesn’t have to ‘win’ the debate but he does have to show Republicans that he is taking this seriously and that means a steady, solid performance and a much better command of the issues.”

Complicating Perry’s task is the fact that businessman Herman Cain — he of the significant rhetorical gifts — is now (or, more accurately, at the moment) a top-tier candidate and will get far more speaking time in this debate than in previous encounters.

And, if past is prologue, Cain will attempt to take the bark off of Perry rather than Romney — believing that he and the Texas governor are competing for the same slice of the conservative electorate.

That dynamic could squeeze Perry between Romney, who will try to cast Perry as unelectable in a general election, and Cain, who will paint him as insufficiently conservative.

Regardless, Perry is lucky to have this sort of opening after his lackluster last month. While some establishment (read: major donors and major activists) support has been moving toward Romney following Christie’s no-go decision last week, it’s far from an avalanche — a testament to the fact that a hesitancy still exists when it comes to the former Massachusetts governor.

“After six years of campaigning, Romney has not made his case to conservatives, and they are looking for an alternative,” said one Perry supporter granted anonymity to speak candidly. “[Perry] just needs to relax in the next debate, clear up a couple of issues, articulate his vision for America, and why he’s the best person to turn around this economy.”

Of course, through the first six weeks of his presidential campaign Perry has struggled to do just that. He needs to find a way to capi­tal­ize on the opportunity afforded him Tuesday night or run the risk that there won’t be many more.

Romney’s religion in focus again: Romney’s religion has cropped up yet again as an issue on his path to the White House, with Perry-supporting Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress sticking by criticism that Mormonism is a “cult.”

Asked about his comments on Fox News on Sunday, Jeffress wasn’t backing down., but said he would still support Romney over President Obama if Romney wins the GOP nomination.

Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Cain aren’t saying whether Mormonism is a form of Christianity, and Newt Gingrich isn’t taking the bait either.

“I’m not running for theologian in chief,” Cain said. “I’m a life-long Christian. And what that means is one of my guiding principles for the decisions I make is I start with do the right thing. I’m not getting into that controversy.”

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who is also Mormon, dismissed the episode as a “ridiculous sideshow.”

Rep. Grimm backs Romney: Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a freshman whose district includes Staten Island and Brooklyn, said he will be endorsing Romney for the Republican presidential nomination on Monday. Grimm, best known for his earlier career as an undercover FBI agent, said he was convinced Romney was the most electable of all the GOP contenders.

“I really feel that Mitt Romney is the guy who can win,” Grimm said. That, he said, was because of Romney’s skills in debates, and his combination of government and private-sector experience.

“If Republicans are looking for the perfect candidate, then they’re making a big mistake,” Grimm said. “Overall, this is the guy that we need to rally behind.”

Grimm said he had not met personally with Romney, but hoped to soon. A spokeswoman for Grimm said she believed he was the first member of the New York delegation to endorse Romney. New York’s Republican primary is scheduled for April 24.

Two options for Mass. redictricting: Massachusetts is losing one seat in redistricting this year, and that means one of its 10 House members — all Democrats — isn’t coming back. The question has long been: which one?

Well, we know a little more about that now. Competing plans in the state legislature would either combine Rep. Stephen Lynch and freshman Rep. William Keating or eliminate a western Massachusetts district, perhaps Rep. John Olver’s.

The Lynch and Keating scenario makes sense, because it targets the delegation’s lone freshment in Keating and the lone member who voted against President Obama’s health care bill in Lynch. Sacking a western Massachusetts district has also been on the table for a while, given the political power located in Boston and the lack of growth out west.

Fixbits:

Perry now says in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants was an economic necessity, rather than a moral one.

Cain positions himself as a chief critic of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Bachmann goes to New Hampshire as her campaign struggles. But there’s even more bad news, as her Virginia office is reportedly shuttered.

Former senator Rick Santorum says his third quarter fundraising was only slightly better than the $582,000 he raised in the second quarter.

Huntsman’s foreign policy address today in New Hampshire will highlight smarter military rather than more military.

Must-reads:

A key bloc of GOP voters agrees only on disliking Mitt Romney” — Perry Bacon Jr., Washington Post

Debt ‘supercommittee’ struggling to agree” — AP

Palin pulls a Palin” — Donald Craig Mitchell, Los Angeles Times

California redistricting means many lawmakers might move” — Tory Van Oot, Sacramento Bee

For Perry, Texas Roots Include Racial Backdrop” — Deborah Sontag and Manny Fernandez, New York Times

GOP candidates’ economic pitches avoid specific solutions” — Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post

David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

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