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First Thoughts: All eyes on Perry

The NBC News-Politico debate from the Reagan Library … Rick Perry’s first debate – does he engage Romney? Does he show depth? … Romney’s first debate NOT as the frontrunner … Bachmann struggles for the spotlight … Paul’s views on full display … Huntsman and Santorum could come out fighting … Gingrich and Cain, can they be relevant?


Republican presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry (TX)

By NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro and Brooke Brower 

*** All eyes on Perry:  SIMI VALLEY, CA -- Officially, tonight’s NBC-Politico debate here at the Reagan Presidential Library is the fourth of the GOP presidential race. But it also represents several firsts: It's the first debate after Labor Day; it's the first featuring Rick Perry; it's also the first where Perry is the GOP front-runner -- and it's the first where Mitt Romney is not. While the physical backdrop is Reagan Library, the political backdrop is a 9.1% unemployment rate, an incumbent president whose approval rating is at an all-time low, a Congress whose disapproval rating is at an all-time high, and a nation that overwhelmingly believes the country is on the wrong track.


Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney unveiling his jobs plan Tuesday, September 6, 2011 in Las Vegas, NV.

*** Do Perry and Romney mix it up? The obvious focus of tonight’s debate -- which begins at 8:00 pm ET and which airs on MSNBC -- will be on Perry. Will the newly minted front-runner hold up to the scrutiny? Will he mix it up with the other GOP candidates (especially Romney) as easily as he’s done on the campaign trail? Or will he try to try to be more statesmanlike in his national debut? As for Romney, he has been much more aggressive since losing his front-runner status. Do we see a different Romney than we saw at his previous two debates (in New Hampshire and Iowa), when he went unscathed?


Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN-6)

*** Three’s Company: As we wrote yesterday, there’s a growing perception that the GOP presidential race is turning into a two-person race between Perry and Romney. And Ed Rollins – Michele Bachmann’s campaign manager who gave up his day-to-day duties – said: “The Perry-Romney race is now the story, with us the third candidate.” But what Bachmann will we see? This will be the first debate she’s struggling for the spotlight. No one knew what to expect in her first debate in New Hampshire, but she stuck to the talking points, was clear articulate and lit up the room. In Ames, she brawled with Tim Pawlenty, and in the end got more than double his votes in the Ames Straw Poll. But with the entry of Perry, Bachmann -- who admitted the Texas governor “sucks the oxygen out of the room” -- has struggled for relevance.

*** The rest: Ron Paul's numbers have been climbing, though he remains far behind the top two. And just how far his anti-federal government views go, especially on issues like disaster relief, will be on full display for an audience just tuning in post-Labor Day. For candidates like Huntsman, Santorum, Gingrich and Cain – how many debates do they have left? Huntsman and Santorum have been very aggressive over the past couple weeks, hitting Romney and Perry. They could be vehicles for the heavyweight fight.

*** On the 2012 trail: The debate, moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams and Politico’s John Harris, kicks off at 8:00 pm ET, can be seen on MSNBC, msnbc.com, and Politico.com. We will be live-Tweeting the debate here on First Read.

*** Wednesday's "The Daily Rundown" line-up (live from the Reagan Library!): Pre-debate thoughts from Perry Campaign Communications Director Ray Sullivan, Romney Campaign Senior Adviser Eric Fehrnstrom and Bachmann Campaign Press Secretary Alice Stewart... A debate preview with Politico's Jim VandeHei... Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) on jobs, the economy, what the GOP 2012ers are saying and President Obama's big speech tomorrow... Plus, more 2012 headlines with the New York Times' Adam Nagourney, Politico's Maggie Haberman and former RNC Chair and MSNBC political analyst Michael Steele.

*** Wednesday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports”: Andrea Mitchell interviews Huntsman, as well as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Countdown to NV-2 and NY-9 special elections: 6 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 62 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 152 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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