The Big Conversation:

Rick Perry, set to debate tonight for the first time as a presidential candidate, now faces the downside of leading the pack: sky-high expectations.

Perry has proven himself a capable debater over the years, but even Ray Sullivan, the governor's campaign spokesman, has admitted that debates aren't Perry's "strong suit." The governor has also spent the past two days off the campaign trail attending to wildfires back home.

But now, after a megawatt entrance that has rocketed him to the top of virtually every Republican poll, Perry will find himself even further outside of his comfort zone, facing questions that will likely cover a broader range of topics than he has ever addressed on stage, and tough opponents ready to pounce on the race's new front-runner.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Likely anticipating the fire he'd draw tonight, Perry on Tuesday took shots at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his chief rival, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the first candidate to produce an ad attacking Perry.

As Republican consultant Allen Blakemore told the Tribune's Emily Ramshaw, Perry's "the kid on the playground with all the toys, and obviously the others are unhappy.”

Some, though, don't expect much from Perry, whose debate history has been marked by several minor but memorable stumbles.

“The bar for Perry is not that high,” Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's political institute, tells The Daily Beast. “As long as he doesn’t melt down in the face of his opponents’ challenges, the debate probably doesn’t do much to harm him. Perry doesn’t need a knockout to survive the debate. All he needs is a split decision.”

But a split-decision performance may not satisfy some Republicans. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who recently dropped out of the race, faced a barrage of criticism after backing down from an attack on Romney in a June debate.

That said, if Perry stumbles tonight, he'll quickly have a chance to recover: Four more debates are scheduled between now and mid-October.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Tonight's debate airs on MSNBC at 7 p.m. Central.

Culled:

  • Officials have found two bodies amid the devastation in Bastrop County as wildfires of unprecedented strength continue to ravage parts of Central Texas. Gov. Rick Perry, who has returned from the campaign trail to manage the crisis, on Tuesday voiced his frustration with the federal government, which he said has been slow to respond to the state's needs.
  • Federal redistricting hearings began in San Antonio on Tuesday, though as the Tribune's Ross Ramsey reports, many lawyers expect action from federal courts in Washington, D.C. — where the state filed its request for pre-clearance of its new maps — before the Texas judges rule on the matter.

“Electability is the fool’s gold of politics.”Dave Carney, chief strategist for Rick Perry, to The Washington Post

Must-Read:

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.