Will Mitt Romney go after Rick Perry in Wednesday’s GOP debate?

Romney advisers told me recently that he was planning to stay above the fray and leave the attacks on Perry to the other candidates. But with his precipitous slide in the polls, Romney may no longer have that luxury — assuming the wildfires in Texas are under control enough to allow Perry to attend the debate. Perry has pulled ahead of him in Iowa, South Carolina, Ohio and Nevada (a state Romney’s team had taken as a given), has tied him in California, and holds a double-digit lead over Romney in three national polls.

Perry’s lead not only is wide, it is deep. According to NPR, Perry “has substantial leads over Romney among men and women and across all age groups. He leads in all geographical regions save for one, the East, where Perry is tied. And, ominously for Romney, Perry is just four points behind Romney with liberal to moderate voters and [Romney] trails Perry with rare or non-church-goers. That is remarkable.”

Faced with this juggernaut, Romney appears to be shifting strategy — and has begun taking shots at Perry on the campaign trail. Last Tuesday in Texas, without mentioning Perry by name, Romney took a swipe at the Texan’s 27-year political career, telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, “I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with the problems of the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don’t know how to get us out.” A few days later in Florida, Romney took another veiled shot at Perry — this time for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants — telling a group of Hispanic Republicans, “We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration. As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants.”

The question is: Will Romney repeat these jabs when Perry is standing next to him on the debate stage? He may not have a choice. Romney will almost certainly be asked about his stepped-up attacks on Perry. If he passes on the chance to repeat them, he risks “pulling a Pawlenty” — ducking the chance to confront his opponent in person after attacking him before other audiences. This proved to be the death blow to Pawlenty’s campaign. Romney cannot afford to repeat Pawlenty’s mistake.

Going on the attack is not without risk for Romney. On immigration, Perry could very well respond by pointing out that in a 2005 interview with the Boston Globe, Romney expressed support for Sen. John McCain’s legislation to provide amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Perry could easily turn Romney’s immigration attack into an opportunity to hit him on his principal weakness: flip-flopping. If Romney goes after Perry as a “career politician,” Perry will probably point out that Romney has spent most of the past 17 years seeking public office — running for Senate in 1994, for governor in 2002, and then running nonstop for president since 2007. The big difference between them, Perry can say, is that he won all his races.

While there are risks for Romney in attacking Perry directly, there are also risks in relying on others to do it for him. Romney advisers are hoping Michele Bachmann will tear Perry down the way she did Tim Pawlenty in the Iowa debate. But it takes two for a good political brawl. Unlike Pawlenty, Perry is way ahead of Bachmann in the polls, and he does not need to engage her. He will probably handle Bachmann much as he did second-tier Republican candidate Debra Medina during the 2010 Texas gubernatorial debates — treat her respectfully, defend his record when needed but mostly ignore her. The same goes for Ron Paul and the rest of the GOP field.

Perry has an added advantage going into the debates: The news stories asking “Is Rick Perry dumb?” and the speculation that he might “implode,” have all helped Perry by lowering expectations. Perry simply needs to put in a credible performance and introduce himself to the American people as a serious, likeable and viable challenger to Barack Obama. The fact is, Perry does not need to score any knock-out punches to win the debate. Romney does. After all, a front-runner’s strategy of staying above the fray only works when you are the front-runner.