Sept. 6 (Bloomberg) — Having avoided preemption by a presidential address, the debate of hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination looms Wednesday night as a critical event on the party’s primary calendar.
All eight candidates are under pressure to perform, yet that pressure isn’t evenly distributed, and the participants don’t all have the same burdens and opportunities on debate night. So who has to do what to be a winner at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California?
Although many have suggested that Texas Governor Rick Perry — participating in his first debate of the race — has the most work to do, in fact, just the opposite is true. Perry does have a long way to go before his front-runner status is cemented, but in this debate, he needs to establish only one thing: sure-footedness.
No candidate since Wesley Clark in the Democratic primaries in September 2003 has leapt so quickly from entering the race to the front of the polls. As the debate-preparation coordinator for the Clark campaign, I remember those heady and anxious days. Like Clark in the fall of 2003, Perry in 2011 is drawing support from many voters who have never heard him utter more than a sound bite or two — a tenuous position.
Perry’s mission tomorrow night, then, is to do nothing that unnerves these newly acquired supporters in their first extended exposure to him. He must sound sharp on economic matters and reassuring on national-security concerns. Having come so far, so fast, Perry probably cannot — and almost certainly need not — gain ground in the debate; his focus needs to be on making sure he doesn’t make major gaffes that imperil his status.