For Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Monday’s Republican presidential debate in Tampa and the three others coming up in rapid succession between now and mid-October are a chance for him to show that he has staying power on the campaign trail.

Perry is a crowd-pleasing campaigner whose conservatism, combined with 10 years of executive experience leading Texas, helped him quickly eclipse Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and the rest of the field in polls soon after he entered the race last month.

A CNN/ORC poll released the day of the debate showed Perry maintaining his front-runner status with 30 percent of Republicans and independents leaning toward the GOP supporting his candidacy in a Republican primary, followed by Mitt Romney at 18 percent. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stands at third place with 15 percent, though she is not a candidate, with Ron Paul placing fourth at 12 percent and Bachmann garnering just four percent of the vote.

By a wide margin, the poll also shows that Perry is the candidate most Republicans believe has the best chance of beating President Obama in November.

Yet Perry remains unproven to a big swath of the Republican electorate. At his debut debate performance in California last week, Perry delivered the same fiery rhetoric and unapologetic critiques of Social Security that have rallied the GOP’s conservative wing to his side. But that wing has proven fickle so far in the 2012 presidential contest. And Perry has yet to convince a broader audience that he is ready to face off against President Obama.

One way for Perry to do that is to fight fire with fire against Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has launched an aggressive effort to brand Perry as unelectable by virtue of his views on Social Security and other issues. Already, Perry aides are smacking back with the accusation that Romney himself has made similar statements on Social Security in the past and is simply changing his own position to make Perry look too extreme to voters for whom beating Obama is paramount. Viewers can expect similar comparisons at the Florida debate.

Viewers can also expect Perry to focus as much as he can on the so-called “Texas miracle” - the state’s record of producing 40 percent of all new jobs created in the United States over the past two years. If asked, Perry will surely repeat his unapologetic support for the death penalty, a position that fired up the audience at last week’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

Because Monday’s debate in Tampa is co-sponsored by Tea Party Express (with CNN as the other sponsor), viewers should expect Perry to embrace some of the more tea-party friendly positions he staked out in his book, “Fed Up!,” - which some critics have characterized as a “tea party manifesto.” Perry’s defense of the 10th amendment (enumerating states’ rights) and his critique of the 16th and 17th amendments (establishing a federal income tax and establishing the election of U.S. senators by popular vote, respectively) will please the tea partiers tuned in - but could provide Romney with another chance to portray the Texan as too extreme.

Hovering over the shoulder of Perry’s still-young campaign is his fervent religious faith. Perry is popular with evangelical Christians, but his participation in “The Response,” an enormous prayer gathering in Houston last month, was controversial - and potentially alienating to Republicans focused on electability in the general election. There is broad overlap among tea party supporters and conservative Christians, but for some tea party leaders, there is no place in the current political landscape (and economic climate) for a candidate who is too focused on social issues. Voters should expect Perry to explain how his religious faith informs his candidacy in the coming days and weeks.


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