Earlier this afternnon, Martin Bashir asked me during his eponymous MSNBC show what Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) would have to do at tonight’s Republican debate in Florida. After all, Gov. Rick Perry (Tx.) is the far-out front runner in the latest polls and is eating up all the oxygen and attention. But, as I told Bashir, the onus is not on Romney to perform tonight. The onus is on Perry.

Perry has a style problem. I have to agree with the observation that Perry was strong at the outset of last week’s debate at the Reagan Library. But then his energy flagged. Will Perry stay perky throughout tonight’s gathering or will the whole debating thing tucker him out again?

Perry has a problem on substance. In California, he doubled down on his Ponzi-scheme allegation against Social Security, a move that earned an immediate and sustained rebuke from Romney. No doubt he and the other candidates tonight will do a twist on Joe Biden’s famous slamof former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. There will be only three things they mention in a sentence. A noun, a verb and “how Perry won’t protect Social Security.” Will Perry triple down in retiree-rich Florida? Will he further refine his message that he wants to “fix” the program? Will the other candidates, particularly Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Invisible), succeed in using the issue to revive or propel their own candidacies?

In the tortoise-and-hare race that is the fight for the Republican nomination, Romney has been the quintessential tortoise. Ok, a bit more agile than a tortoise. But Romney has been steady, focused and determined. And when Perry made his debate debut last week, Romney was ready to go toe-to-toe. He upped his game just when folks thought he was wedded to a fly-on-the-wall strategy that worked for him in previous debates.

The key advantage Romney has over everyone else in the race is he’s run this race before. He knows how to pace himself. And he knows where the landmines are or might be. He knows what he should say, what he shouldn’t say and how to say nothing at all.  

So, watch Romney all you want tonight. My focus is on Perry and whether he can stand the hot lights that come with being center stage.