SIMI VALLEY, California (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry was the man in the spotlight on Wednesday as Republican presidential candidates gathered at Ronald Reagan’s library for a debate.
The conservative Perry, who in just a few weeks as an official candidate has soared to front-runner status in the race for his party’s 2012 presidential nomination, will be taking the stage for the first time as his rivals try to knock him off his perch.
The event is the first in a series of debates in the next six weeks that may help define a Republican race that increasingly looks like a contest between Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The debate was set to start at 5 p.m. PDT (8 p.m. EDT/midnight GMT).
Perry, buoyed by support from activists in the conservative Tea Party movement, has been able to relegate Romney to secondary status in public opinion polls. His challenge will be to solidify his status as the top dog.
“For a lot of people, this will be the first time they will have seen Rick Perry on television,” Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “It’s important that he start telling his story before these other candidates start taking him down.”
The 105-minute debate, sponsored by NBC News and Politico, takes place at the Reagan Presidential Library in this northern suburb of Los Angeles.
Romney, the previous front-runner in the race to decide who will be the Republican nominee to face President Barack Obama in 2012, will be watched to see if he goes on the attack to make up ground against Perry.
Senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney would use the debate to “keep the focus on President Obama and his failures and talk up his experience leading in challenging situations” as governor, business executive and head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
But Fehrnstrom added: “Mitt is prepared to respond if his record is attacked.”
Romney unveiled a jobs plan on Tuesday that would cut government regulations and overhaul the tax code. He is promoting his belief that his own business experience would help him repair the stagnant U.S. economy.
“Romney needs to stick to his economic growth plan and wear it out,” Reed said. “He needs to really become the economic growth candidate.”
Perry and Romney already have been bickering from afar. Romney alluded to the Texas governor as a “career politician” on a recent trip to Texas. The Perry campaign hit Romney’s economic plan, saying when he was Massachusetts governor, he “failed to institute many of the reforms he now claims to support.”
Long-shot candidate Ron Paul planned to raise questions about Perry in a television advertisement during the debate, reminding viewers that Perry had been a Democrat who had supported Democrat Al Gore for president in 1988.
“America must decide who to trust: Al Gore’s Texas cheerleader or the one who stood with Reagan,” the ad says.
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann has been fading despite winning a straw poll in Iowa in August and the debate will give her an opportunity to try to reignite her candidacy.
Perry so far has clearly out-performed Bachmann in their race to decide who is the conservative alternative to Romney.
Bachmann’s campaign manager Ed Rollins, before taking on a reduced role as a senior adviser in her campaign, conceded that Perry’s entry into the race had slowed Bachmann’s momentum.
Others expected to participate in the debate include: Paul; former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum; and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
One name likely to come up often in the debate is Obama, who is in the doldrums in public opinion polls as Americans question his handling of the U.S. economy. Obama is to lay out his own plan to create jobs on Thursday in a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
Editing by Bill Trott