Debates Will Separate the Contenders from the Also-Rans

The Republican presidential campaign is about to go into overdrive. Five debates are to be held in just six weeks starting on September 7. The race has essentially restarted since the entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry upended the dynamics of the contest. Some candidacies will fall apart. Others will unexpectedly propel forward. And some will do both, in either order. Now, the real fun starts.

It’s the Rick Perry Show right now, but the spotlight can burn. He leads Romney by 27-14 among Republican and Republican-leaning independents nationally. His immediate task is to meet extremely high expectations. General Wesley Clark and former Senator Fred Thompson were overhyped and their candidacies quickly faded. Perry’s advantage is that he’s the three-term governor of Texas, giving him much more experience than they had in politics. As I mentioned on Hannity, he also has a base of support among evangelicals. It’s hard to think of anything that can top his “Day of Prayer.” If Perry does meet expectations, the anti-Romney vote will begin coalescing around him and he will be a strong frontrunner.

Mitt Romney will hold back from striking Perry in the beginning because he knows the other candidates will do the job for him. The fates of their candidacies depend upon undermining Perry. Romney wants the right-of-Romney vote to be as divided as possible, and he hopes that the candidates will be too busy sniping at each other to throw any hard punches his way. He will also focus on electability, playing on concerns that Perry is too much of a regional candidate. Romney’s style in the past debates will probably go unchanged for now.

Michele Bachmann has a dilemma. She needs to bring down Perry without seeming panicked and unpresidential and without alienating his supporters. She must hope that Sarah Palin stays out of the race and if she does, that she doesn’t endorse Perry. Bachmann will emphasize her credentials on illegal immigration, positioning herself to benefit when Perry is criticized on the issue. She will refrain from going on a strong offensive against Perry for the moment and will wait to see if the media scrutiny and high expectations bring him down in the polls.