Image: Rick Perry in Des Moines
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry visits with 2-year-old Reuben Layton and his mother Anna Layton of Newton, Iowa, last month at the state fair in Des Moines. The Texas governor faces his first presidential debate Wednesday night.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/7/2011 9:53:16 AM ET 2011-09-07T13:53:16

For a presidential hopeful such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry who soars in the polls and sparks intense buzz, the first debate is the moment when reality meets and sometimes scuttles all the exuberant expectations.

A lot of other candidates — who've been hard at work for months — think they deserve the nomination and in the NBC News/POLITICO Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Wednesday night, each of them will want to derail the latest entrant to the GOP contest. (The debate can be seen live on MSNBC and at 8:00pm ET. is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft).

But — showing the role of unexpected crises in presidential campaigns — Perry had to return to Texas from the campaign trail Monday to manage his state’s response to deadly wildfires that have killed four people.

A Perry campaign spokesman said Tuesday that the governor still plans on attending the debate, but the episode illustrated why the pull of a governor’s responsibilities can sometimes make it hard to be a full-time candidate.

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But Perry enters the debate with some good news as he prepares to meet his rivals. He leads all his competitors in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, with 38 percent of Republicans supporting him, compared to 23 percent for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, 9 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and 8 percent for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Story: Obama hits all-time lows, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll

And Perry won the endorsements of two major figures in South Carolina GOP politics in the past days: first-term Rep. Mick Mulvaney and former state party chairman Barry Wynn.

Romney, Bachmann, and a handful of other candidates will be on hand Wednesday but they've already had a turn or two on the national debate stage.

Audiences in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire have had the chance to see Perry campaigning in person, but Wednesday is his debut on a stage with real, live competitors.

With the economy likely to be uppermost in voters’ minds next year, Romney offered his economic program in a speech Tuesday in Nevada. He called for cutting the corporate income tax rate to 25 percent (from the current top rate of 35 percent), eliminating the estate tax, keeping personal income tax rates at their current level, and requiring any new federal regulation to be offset by “cost reductions from the existing regulatory burden.”

Video: Ahead of GOP debate, Romney unveils jobs plan (on this page)

The GOP nomination now appears even more worth competing for: in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has sunk to a low of 44 percent, his lowest approval rating since he took office in January 2009. Only 19 percent think the country is headed in the right direction, another new low point for Obama.

The president’s vulnerability ratchets up the interest in a group of eight politicians, any one of whom could be the next president and in charge in 2013 of leading the nation out of its economic morass.

Although Perry seems to be leading the GOP pack, such early polls frequently prove to be inaccurate guides to what happens in the Iowa caucuses and the early primaries. Just ask the man Perry supported and for whom he campaigned in 2008, Rudy Giuliani.

Video: Obama hits all-time low in new poll (on this page)

Getting to know Rick Perry
Perry, first elected to the Texas legislature in 1985 as a Democrat, has had an event-filled quarter-century career in Texas politics, but Republican voters outside the Lone Star know little about him yet.

Wednesday is their chance to size him up — and the chance for Perry’s rivals to cross-examine him, on such questions as:

  • Why he signed a bill in 2001 that gave illegal immigrants in-state tuition at Texas universities. In a speech Friday, Mitt Romney noted that he had vetoed such a bill when he was governor of Massachusetts.
  • What Perry meant in his speech last week to the Veteran of Foreign Wars when he denounced “a foreign policy of military adventurism” — and which recent U.S. military commitments he'd put in that category.
  • Whether Perry endorsed the $700 billion bailout in October of 2008 when, as the head of the Republican Governors Association, he sent a letter to congressional leaders urging enactment of an economic recovery package. “If Congress does not act soon, the situation will grow appreciably worse," Perry said in that 2008 letter. Did he believe in bailouts and stimulus then and, if so, why?

Perry faced that bailout question in a debate last year with his two rivals for the gubernatorial nomination last year. His explanation to one of those rivals, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, when she challenged him about that 2008 letter: “I thought you were smart enough to understand what we were talking about: Stop the spending and cut the taxes….I wish we'd made it a little clearer for you.”

'Like running against God'
Over his 25 years in politics, Perry has enjoyed uncanny good fortune. Democrat John Sharp, who lost the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race to him, recently told the Texas Monthly, “Running against Perry is like running against God. Everything breaks his way!”

Whether that luck works for him Wednesday night and in the weeks ahead will be a key factor in the coming months.

Winning three gubernatorial elections in Texas is no small achievement, but it is, after all, a solidly Republican state, a place where no Democrat has won in a presidential, gubernatorial or U.S. Senate race since 1990.

Video: Super PAC to spend $55 million on Perry (on this page)

In November of 2012, Texas and most of the South will be in the bag for almost any Republican candidate. The road to the White House goes not through Texas, but through Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia – states that George W. Bush won in 2004 but Obama carried in 2008.

It’s an open question whether Perry has greater potential to appeal to GOP voters in a state such as Ohio than does Romney, Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, or one of the other contenders.

Bachmann's Iowa chances in jeopardy
Worth watching especially closely Wednesday night will be Bachmann, whose hopes of winning the first GOP contest, the Iowa caucuses, seem to be in jeopardy by Perry’s appeal to social and religious conservative voters.

Bachmann is a fiercely disciplined campaigner — she demolished Democratic opponents in a battleground congressional district in what were extremely good years for Democrats nationwide, 2006 and 2008 — but she’s now in the big leagues.

Story: Michele Bachmann's campaign manager quits, says she's the 'third candidate'

Also under scrutiny Wednesday will be Romney, who had the luxury of being able to play a mellow bystander to the sparring of his rivals in the last Republican debate, as Tim Pawlenty (who has since dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the Ames straw poll) went after Bachmann, and former Sen. Rick Santorum lambasted Paul for his non-interventionist stance on Iran.

But Wednesday's debate isn’t just a matter of sparring and jostling among eight ambitious people who all think they could do better than Obama.

Video: Perry set to take part in GOP debate (on this page)

For not only Republican voters but for anyone who worries about the nation’s future, Wednesday's debate will offer an opportunity to see if any of these contenders seems prepared to take on the long-term dangers to the nation’s prosperity.

For the next president, whoever that may be, sobering questions await. Just one of them — but a scary one — how does the next president steer the federal government's finances away from the collision course that now seems inevitable between entitlement spending and defense spending.

Consider that by the end of the next presidential term, 2017, the ratio between entitlement spending and defense spending will have grown to three to one, instead of the current ratio of two to one.

Perry’s recent attention-grabbing comments about Social Security — “a Ponzi scheme for these young people” and “a monstrous lie on this generation,” meaning, people in their twenties —shows he’s at least thinking about the entitlements challenge. For solutions, tune in Wednesday night.

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Video: Perry set to take part in GOP debate

  1. Closed captioning of: Perry set to take part in GOP debate

    >>> now to politics and what's sure to be an interesting debate between the presidential candidate , gop takes to the stage at the reagan presidential library tonight for the nbc news political debate . and for the first time texas governor rick perry will be in attendance. tom brokaw is here now to break it down for us. according to the polls rick perry is leading the race even though he's only been in it for, what, three weeks? the question really is, even before he's had his first national presidential debate with him so high in the polls, what are the stakes for the field tonight?

    >> the stakes are it seems to me whether he appears or not because of the wildfires in texas, he's going to be the pinata at this debate. everybody is going to take a whack at him because he'sed a a meteoric rise. in a book he wrote a couple years ago called "fed up," the supreme court , you ought to be able to overturn their decisions with two-thirds vote, talked about succession. this is a man who raised a lot of money, he's obviously captured that part of the republican party dominated at the moment by the tea party . so he's got a lot of things going on. and for romney and the others, they've got to show him up.

    >> meantime, the republican candidates are courting as we all know the tea party . but a new quinnipiac poll consider themselves as tea party members. do you think they have an influence on general election ?

    >> we'll see. the fact is if the tea party members are extremely well organized and they do show up. it's a small choir but it's very organized and it's very noisy. and republicans feel they have to pay attention to them to advance their cause within the wider republican party . the danger for republican candidates is that if you play only to that narrow part of their party, what happens when the general election comes along. i've said this before. tea parties play by the rules. they got organized, angry, and got to where they are.

    >> the meantime "the new york times" report that the white house is trying to remake the image of the president. but given this deep pessimism, tom, evidence in the most recent nbc news/" wall street journal " poll, is it to late to remake the image of the president?

    >> the shake and bake your own as we all live, you are reinvent yourself pretty quickly. even among democrats, especially after his decision about suspending some environmental rules recently, there are real questions about who is this guy, which one is going to show up this week. we've seen the cool arbiter, the guy who took a shot at trying to do something about the debt and then on labor day he was the angry populous in detroit. i think people are looking for a consistency from the white house and a consistent image from this president. i think that's a big part of it. his numbers are way down. people still like him but they don't think he's getting the job done on the economy and all the indications are they're willing to trade him in for someone else.

    >> all this while america is now getting ready, preparing to remember 9/11 ten years later. you know, we often have you on our broadcast to give us kind of a sense of the mood of america . where is america now ten years after this great tragedy?

    >> america is in a kind of an emotional bunker at the moment, wondering where in the world this country is going. i find that across the political spectrum , small towns and large. who are we, where are we going to get to, and how are we going to get there. i think this anniversary may be able to reignite some of the feeling that we had ten years ago that we're all in this together. i have a program on on friday night called " america members " remembers." these are survivors and family members and widows of people who died . remarkable stories because it's all about will and about making my life better in memory of the people who died . i suppose that should be a kind of a natural calling for all of us.

    >> areminding of our true american grit.

    >> that's true. we have to be more of the sum of our parts. we have deeply divided across the landscape. 9/11 will be a reminder that we're all together.

    >> tom brokaw , thank you. you can see his special " 9/11 america remembers " friday night at 9:00 p.m ., 8:00 central time . and you can also see the 2012 republican debate co-moderated by brian williams at 8:00 p.m . eastern on msnbc.

Photos: Rick Perry

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  1. Rick Perry, then the Agricultural Commissioner of Texas, applauds with other officials during a 1992 event for President George H. Bush, second from left. Perry began his political career in the Texas House of Representatives in 1985 and served three terms before becoming the Agricultural Commissioner which he held from 1991- 1999. (Marcy Nighswander / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. President-elect George W. Bush gets a hug from Texas Lt. Gov. Rick Perry following his resignation announcement in December 2000. Perry was sworn in as governor of Texas later that day. (Paul Buck / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Perry married his childhood sweetheart, Anita Thigpen, at left, in 1982. They have two children, daughter Sydney and a son, Griffin, at right. (Harry Cabluck / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Perry fields questions about the planned Trans Texas Corridor in 2002. The 145 billion-dollar program that would have added highways, rail and data lines was criticized for being a 'land grab' and a potentially lucrative deal for the privately owned company Cintra. After much debate, the project was killed in 2010. (D.J. Peters / Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. President George W. Bush takes the stage to address a Republican fundraiser for Perry in June 2002 in Houston. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Perry debates Democrat Tony Sanchez during the 2002 governor's race. Perry easily won the election, his first of three. (Tony Gutierrez / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Perry (center) attends a memorial service for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Mission Control lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia during the reentry phase on February 1, 2003 and later learned that the shuttle had broken up over Texas. All seven astronauts on board were lost. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Perry, center, casts the votes on behalf of the delegates from his state during the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Perry signs an abortion consent bill in June 2005. The bill restricted abortion late in a pregnancy and required minor girls to get parental consent for an abortion. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Perry announces a special legislative session in June 2005. He vetoed the state's $35.3 billion public education budget and called lawmakers back to the Capitol to finally find a solution to the school finance dilemma. In 2001, Perry set a state record for the use of the veto, rejecting legislation 82 times. By 2005, he had used his veto power 133 times. (Thomas Terry / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Perry outlines his border security plan during a news conference in June 2006. Accusing the federal government of failing the state, Perry toured South Texas, selling his $125 million state plan for "neighborhood watch" surveillance cameras and better-funded border sheriffs' and police departments. Perry has opposed the creation of the physical barrier along the Mexico-U.S. border. (Mark Lambie / El Paso Times via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Perry made national headlines when he issued an executive order requiring the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV), an anti-cancer vaccine, for sixth-grade girls starting in September 2008. Some conservatives argued that the vaccine promoted promiscuity and took power out of the hands of parents. (Harry Cabluck / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Perry attends a naturalization ceremony in 2007 where more than 1,000 Austin residents representing 85 countries took the Oath of Allegiance to become United States citizens. Perry supports the Arizona immigration ruling, the most restrictive anti-illegal immigration measure in America. (Taylor Jones / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Republican 2008 presidential hopeful and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani appears with Texas Governor Rick Perry during a campaign stop in Ft. Myers, Florida. When Perry joined the Texas House of Representatives in 1984, he was a Democrat and supported Al Gore in the 1988 presidential election. In 1989, he switched parties and became a Republican. (Daniel Barry / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain waits to speak with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Round Rock, Texas, in 2008. Perry initially endorsed Giuliani for president but after the former New York City mayor bowed out of the race, Perry put his support behind McCain. (Ben Sklar / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Perry speaks appears on the screen at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. During college, Perry was a member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets and served in the Air Force upon graduating. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. President George W. Bush participates in a briefing on Hurricane Ike damage with Perry in 2008. The storm resulted in the largest evacuation of Texas in the state's history. Later, during Hurricane Rita in 2005, Perry ordered contraflow lane reversal on several major highways to aid in the evacauation. (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Perry speaks to the crowd during a "Don't Mess With Texas" tea party rally in Austin in April 2009. He was criticized after he said after the event that Texans might want to secede from the United States. "If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?" he said. "But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot." (Harry Cabluck / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Perry listens as President Barack Obama addresses the Fort Hood community during a memorial service for the soldiers and civilians killed in a shooting rampage there on November 5, 2009. (Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison share a light moment during a Texas GOP gubernatorial debate in 2010. Perry easily defeated Hutchison in the hard-fought primary. (Louis Deluca / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Piper Palin and musician Ted Nugent appear on stage during a rally for Perry's re-election in 2010. A few weeks prior, Perry invited his friend and musician Ted Nugent to perform at his inaugural gala, where Nugent appeared onstage wearing a t-shirt with the Confederate flag, (Gary Miller / FilmMagic) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Perry, a strong supporter of gun rights, fires a six-shooter pistol during a promotional event with Texas Motor Speedway in April 2010. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Perry, center, sings his alma mater's fight song before an NCAA college football game between Texas Tech and Texas A&M, in 2010. A graduate of Texas A&M, Perry was a member of the "Aggie Yell Leaders", or male cheerleaders, elected by popular vote of the student body. (Dave Einsel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Perry embraces his wife Anita after being elected to his third term by defeating Democratic challenger Bill White in 2010. (Ben Sklar / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Perry signs copies of his second book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington" during a stop in Tyler, Texas in 2010. (Jaime R. Carrero / Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, surrounded by his family, waves to the crowd after announcing his run for president, Aug. 13, 2011, in Charleston, S.C. (Alice Keeney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. During a televised GOP debate on CNBC, Rick Perry struggles to remember what three government agencies he had promised to shut down if elected president, as Teexas Rep. Ron Paul watches. Eight candidates took part in the 'Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate' at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, on Nov. 9. 2011. Later Perry admitted he had 'stepped in it.' (Jeff Kowalsky / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pauses during a news conference in North Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 19, 2012, where he announced he is suspending his campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich. His son Griffin is at left. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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