SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Hordes of reporters have descended onto the grounds of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to see if Rick Perry will stumble or shine in his first nationally televised debate.

“It really is all about Perry,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Perry has become the essence of this campaign. He’s not just a minimal front-runner. He’s a strong front-runner.”

Accompanied by campaign manager Rob Johnson and consultant Dave Carney, Perry did a brief walk-through Wednesday of the studio where he will debate his major rivals. More than 350 reporters and media representatives were credentialed to cover the debate, organizers said. Many of them were stuck in sweltering heat in an un-airconditioned tent outside.

Perry came out of the chute bucking a day before the debate, hitting both Ron Paul and Mitt Romney in critical press releases. Romney is his closest competitor, so criticizing the former Massachusetts governor was not unexpected.

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But Perry also struck further down the line of rivals. Paul, a Surfside congressman whose chances of winning seem remote, had fired the first shot. Paul criticized Perry — who got his start as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature — for supporting Al Gore for president in 1988.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner returned fire in a press release Tuesday, saying Paul had erroneously portrayed himself as a loyal follower of Ronald Reagan. When Paul left the GOP to run as a Libertarian in 1988, he wrote a letter criticizing Reagan and the Republican Party.

Sabato said the broadside speaks volumes about the way Perry, known as tough-as-nails brawler, will conduct his presidential campaign.

“My interpretation was Perry was sending a signal to all the candidates: Every time you lay a finger on me, I’m going to lay two fingers on you,” Sabato said.

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