GOP Debaters Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann Will Gun for Rick Perry

Wednesday night’s debate won’t be about President Obama this time but Rick Perry, says Mark McKinnon.

Who will be the target of more attacks at the GOP debate Wednesday night, President Barack Obama or Texas Gov. Rick Perry?

Just three weeks into his presidential campaign, Perry now leads former Mass. governor Mitt Romney by a more than 2:1 margin, at 36 percent to 17 percent, in the latest POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll, which also shows nearly three out of four voters saying the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Ironically, the debate will take place at the presidential library of Ronald Reagan, famous for admonishing his GOP brethren to adhere to the so-called 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republicans.” But the seven other candidates surrounding Perry on stage will undoubtedly try to rein in the Texas governor, whether or not he is able to attend with the latest round of wildfires still burning in the Lone Star State.

Perry, right now, has the big mo, with a positive intensity of 25 among Republican and Republican-leaning independents voters, with the lesser-known Herman Cain at 24, as measured by Gallup. The rest of the field follows, with Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Rep. Ron Paul at decreasing intensities, and a personal low for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman of -2.

Having performed well in the previous debates simply by not losing, Romney needs to go on the offensive now to prove he, not Perry, is the “real” jobs candidate.

Bachmann needs to regain lost ground to prove she is not the third-place candidate as her own campaign adviser, Ed Rollins, judged before jumping ship. To woo back Tea Party support from Perry, she has to outflank him to the right, and she risks going too far.

Paul will continue to bite at Perry’s ankles to the delight of his fervent followers but to the dismissal of most of the electorate.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, along with Cain and Huntsman, will be battling to prove they are still relevant.

The remaining GOP candidates not on the stage—Rep. Thad McCotter, Gary Johnson, Buddy Roemer, and independent Fred Karger—will not be given the chance to make an impact on the conversation.

Perry has the least and the most to prove. And the stakes are huge. If he does okay, his status as frontrunner will be cemented. If he blows it, he could claw his way to the bottom fast. The game plan for Perry? Just come across as calm, thoughtful, and most of all, reasonable.

This is the first time on the big stage in the bright spotlight for Perry. This debate will be all about him. The press will be obsessively focused on his performance. The headline will be: Perry Implodes, Perry Survives, or Perry Blows the Roof Off.