Rick Perry debuts as debater at Reagan Library

Even Ronald Reagan won’t be able to compete with the attention likely to be focused on Texas Gov. Rick Perry at Wednesday’s Republican debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in California.

Perry has catapulted to the front of the presidential field since joining the GOP nominating contest last month. But Wednesday’s debate, hosted by NBC and Politico, marks his first appearance onstage with his competitors. He will be watched closely to see how he handles their jabs — and how he defines himself and his candidacy before a live, national audience.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll published Tuesday shows that Perry has surged ahead in the race for the Republican nomination, pushing fomer Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney into second place — and cutting deeply into the momentum of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who was enjoying a similar surge until Perry’s entrance.

Perry’s surge has been fueled partly by his popularity within the tea party movement — and partly by the growing view that he is the candidate best suited to defeat President Obama next fall. His decade-long leadership of Texas, including a record of job growth that has dramatically outpaced the rest of the nation, has also turned Republicans in his direction.

But Perry is largely untested as a national candidate, and that’s what makes Wednesday’s debate so crucial for him. He is also not a seasoned debater, having declined to participate in a single such event during his campaign for re-election last year against former Houston mayor Bill White.

Although it is just one of five such events scheduled over the next two months, Wednesday’s debate at the Reagan library could define the presidential race — and Perry’s place in it — at a critical, post-Labor Day moment when more voters are tuning in.

Perry is likely to go after Romney on the jobs issue, not only touting his own record but criticizing the plan Romney unveiled with great fanfare in a major speech in Las Vegas Tuesday. Perry’s spokesmanMark Miner issued a withering statement after the speech in which he said: “As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney failed to create a pro-jobs environment and failed to institute many of the reforms he now claims to support.”

But Perry should also expect to take some return fire on his jobs record; although Texas is home to one-third of all U.S. jobs created in the last two years, some critics attribute that boom more to an increase in the state’s population and to growth in oil and gas industries than to Perry’s own achievements. Texas is also home to the most minimum-wage earners in the country, and more of its residents lack health insurance than in any other state.

Another vulnerability that Perry may face at the debate is his approach to immigration policy, which includes support for a state version of the proposed federal DREAM Act, which would open up a path to amnesty to certain illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children.

Amnesty is not popular among most Republican primary voters. Perry has argued that as the chief executive of a border state, he knows more than any other candidate in the field about the problems of illegal immigration. And his tough-talking positions on other issues, such as the death penalty, gun rights and small government, could outweigh his vulnerability on immigration.

Lastly, the extensive library of Perry’s statements — for example in the book he published last year, “Fed Up!” — on such controversial subjects as gay marriage, religion, the role of government and Social Security are likely to be the subject of questions Wednesday.

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