Shortly after Labor Day the Republican presidential contenders will meet for a series of high-profile debates that start Wednesday, September 7, at the Reagan Library in California.
Pre-debate media buzz centers on Texas Governor Rick Perry, the latest and therefore most newsworthy candidate in the group, as he makes his debate debut. Despite Perry's history as a perennial office-seeker and his track record of ten consecutive electoral wins, the man sorely lacks debate experience. This is his own fault: whenever possible he has shirked debates. In the short term this reticence made sense, keeping Perry and his famously undisciplined mouth out of harm's way. But it has been nearly two years since the governor's last joint appearance with a rival, and his deficit of debating chops may now come back to bite him in the butt.
Several questions surround Perry as he steps into the debate fray:
• To what extent will Perry be forced into playing defense over controversial assertions he has made in the past? Debate moderators will undoubtedly repeat Perry's statements regarding Social Security, climate change, secession, direct election of senators, etc. What the moderators leave unasked, rival candidates are likely to raise. All this attention could relegate Perry to the bottom of a dog-pile. Furthermore, from a rhetorical standpoint, he faces a difficult choice: does he back away from his previous remarks or double down?
• How effectively will Perry beat the "dumb guy" rap? In evaluating debates, press pundits watch to see whether candidates can overcome negative stereotypes. In recent weeks the media have given plentiful attention to Perry's intellect, or lack thereof. Debate commentators will be observing closely to see if he says something stupid. This scrutiny carries an upside for Perry, because it places him in the enviable position of facing low expectations. Low expectations did wonders for Perry's stylistic doppelganger, George W. Bush, and history has been known to repeat itself. As long as Governor Perry does not show up for the debate packing heat and babbling like an idiot, he stands to succeed.
• How will Perry fit into the Republican field? To date we have observed the governor campaigning in isolation, where he has clearly been the star of his own show. What happens when he shares turf with his rivals? Does his luster diminish, or does the dullness of the competition make him shine all the brighter? To some extent debates are exercises in running out the clock, and with eight candidates vying for face-time, Perry will not actually have to say that much. So should he attempt to dominate the stage, or maintain a deliberately low profile in the hope of emerging unscathed?
• How will Perry relate to his peers? One of the interesting things that debates reveal is how candidates treat their fellow contenders. Think of Al Gore invading George W. Bush's personal space in the 2000 town hall debate, or Rick Lazio thrusting a sheet of paper in Hillary Clinton's face during a New York senatorial match-up that same year. More recently we saw John McCain's unwillingness to make eye contact with Barack Obama in 2008. What will we learn from how Perry behaves toward his competitors?
• What will Michele Bachmann do to rattle Perry's cage? These two are vying for the same slice of the right-wing pie, and it will be fascinating to see how hard Bachmann makes him fight for it. In her two previous debates, Bachmann has enjoyed mixed success. After a spectacular debut in New Hampshire, some of the helium escaped from the balloon during round two in Iowa. The congresswoman now runs the risk of becoming marginalized as a novelty act with no staying power. Will Perry's presence in the debates stiffen her much-vaunted titanium spine or reduce her to irrelevance?
• How will Mitt Romney deal with Perry? Romney's approach to the Perry juggernaut is likely to differ from Bachmann's, and not just because they appeal to different wings of the Republican party. Romney's style as a debater is to avoid engagement and float above the fray. He has only a single setting in debates, neither flashy nor dull, aggressive nor passive, just straight down the middle. This can be effective, but against picturesque characters like Perry and Bachmann Romney tends to blend into the scenery -- which may be exactly what he wants at this point.
• Will any of the second-stringers gain traction against Perry? In a multi-person debate, one guaranteed method of generating sound bites is to punch above your weight. Rival candidates have already been taking shots at front-runner Perry on the campaign trail; the debate milieu offers a perfect opportunity to do so face-to-face, with millions of viewers and the political press paying rapt attention. Jon Huntsman, for example, has laid the groundwork for questioning the Texas governor's anti-science views. He or some of the others may see Perry's presence on the debate stage as their ticket out of obscurity.
Rick Perry, presumably, is spending Labor Day weekend in intense debate prep. He ought to. Debating requires a specific skill set, one that this otherwise savvy politician has so far failed to develop. After these upcoming match-ups, America will have a much clearer idea of who Rick Perry is, and whether his lead in the polls is based on genuine strength or magical thinking.