Perry is still the front-runner, and the race was always going to tighten, as Perry underwent scrutiny of the press and attacks by the other candidates. But Perry needs to do better in tonight’s debate if he is going to sustain his lead. He did well enough in his first debate at the Reagan Library, but last week’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate was another matter. Perry was ready for Romney’s attacks on Social Security and largely won those exchanges in the first part of the debate. But as the debate went on, he lagged and had poor answers on other questions he should have anticipated, such as his executive order mandating HPV vaccines and charges of crony capitalism. He allowed other candidates to set the agenda and focus the debate on him — playing defense instead of offense. Romney largely watched on the sidelines while the lesser creatures of the forest mauled Perry — which, as I pointed out in a column last month — was his strategy all along.

All of which suggests that tonight’s debate is critical for Rick Perry.  One weak debate showing is not fatal, but two in a row could be another matter. If Perry falters again, he could see the slippage of support from his campaign accelerate. To succeed, Perry needs to stop being the “piñata” at the party and start taking the offensive against Romney.  Instead of defending his record all night, he needs to put Romney and the other candidates on the defensive. He needs to attack on Romneycare.  He needs to go on the attack on Social Security by pointing out that Romney claims to want to “save” the program but has proposed a payroll tax cut that would raid the Social Security trust fund, robbing it of hundreds of billions of dollars and speeding the day it will reach bankruptcy. (Why Perry has not taken up this line of attack is inexplicable). And he needs to focus the debate on jobs, contrasting his first-in-that nation record in Texas with Romney’s third from last in Massachusetts. If Michele Bachmann repeats her HPV attacks, he needs to point out that his policy was voluntary and left the decision up to parents, who had the right to opt out — and go after her for her baseless allegations that Gardasil causes mental retardation. 

Moreover, tonight expect Brett Baier — a former Pentagon correspondent for Fox News — to devote considerably more time to national security than CNN did in its debate last week. Perry needs to perform better on these questions than he did in Tampa, where he echoed Jon Huntsman’s call to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. To the contrary, Perry should go after President Obama for not sending all the surge forces his military commanders requested, and for bringing them home too soon over his military commanders’ objections. He needs to talk about victory instead of retreat, and look like a commander in chief.

To prevail, Romney simply needs to keep doing what he is doing — focus on Obama, defend his record where necessary, take shots at Perry if the opportunity presents itself but leave it to the other candidates go after Perry. If tonight is a repeat of Tampa, Romney wins. With Perry’s fall in the polls, the burden is increasingly on the Texan to score some points and show he can take the offensive. Conservatives want to support him but are holding back. They want to see if Perry can defend his record and successfully attack Romneycare. If he can’t, they will begin to wonder: How can he prosecute the case against Obamacare in 2012?  Perry’s task tonight is to show them that he can.