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For GOP, debate is where expectations meet reality

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 msnbc.com at 8:00pm ET.  msnbc.com 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.