The Republican presidential candidates will gather for their second televised debate in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, when Bloomberg and the Washington Post host a forum centered entirely on the economy.
The back and forth on policy at the debate could be overshadowed by a bigger storyline: Can Rick Perry use the event to turn his turn his campaign around?
Perry, the governor of Texas, has lost his position as the front-runner in 2012 polls in recent weeks, amid criticism over his uneven debate performances. His position on Social Security, which he's described as a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" that ought to be administered by the 50 states instead of the federal government, will almost certainly come under scrutiny at the debate. His support for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas public universities is also likely to come up, as his rivals have cast the policy as fiscally unwise.
At the last three debates, Perry has struggled to defend his policies, and he has also had trouble delivering scripted attacks against Mitt Romney, his leading opponent for the Republican presidential nomination. Will Perry be better prepared Tuesday night?
The answer could determine the fate of his campaign for the White House. While Perry raised $17 million in his first weeks as a presidential candidate, money alone won't allow the Texas governor to overcome skepticism among Republican voters and party insiders about his ability to defeat President Barack Obama. Only a strong debate showing and a steady grasp of issues can do that.
If Perry can't regain momentum now, he will not be able to recover.
The Texas governor's campaign is taking the moment seriously. Since last month's disastrous Florida debate, Perry has taken time away from campaign events to work on debate preparations and to retool his message offer sharper explanations of his positions. Later this week, he'll deliver what a campaign source describes as a "significant" economic speech in Pittsburgh focusing on energy and jobs—a sign that Perry knows he can't simply rely on his record in Texas to carry him through the nomination fight.
Beyond the substance, Perry is focused on the style of his performance. An unnamed campaign source told Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times that Perry has been practicing his debate routine against a stand-in for Mitt Romney in recent weeks.
And he's also been trying to get more sleep—a notable development, given Perry has appeared to fade in the last hour of his last three debates.
"We had a tired puppy," a "Republican friend" of the candidate told Zeleny. "He had been pushed really hard." That's not exactly the best imagery to use when trying to cast Perry as a strong Republican nominee against Obama next fall.
Perry faces another hurdle heading into Tuesday's debate: Because of his falling poll numbers, Perry's spot at center stage will now be filled by Romney. Perry will have to share the spotlight with Herman Cain, who is now running second to Romney in many national polls.
Clashes between Perry and Romney have dominated the news coverage of previous debates. On Tuesday, it's likely that Cain will go after Perry, whom he has accused in recent days of not being a true conservative.
Between Cain's attacks and Romney's attempts to portray him as unprepared, Perry finds his candidacy on the brink of collapse only two months after his entry into the race.
Perry's ability to respond on Tuesday will be a defining moment in his campaign.
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