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Facing a Key Debate — and a Tougher Race

He’s still the front-runner, but Gov. Rick Perry has entered a crucial and more competitive phase of the 2012 Republican presidential contest, ratcheting up pressure on him ahead of his third televised debate this week in Orlando.

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ORLANDO, Fla. — He’s still the front-runner, but Gov. Rick Perry has entered a crucial and more competitive phase of the 2012 Republican presidential contest, ratcheting up pressure on him ahead of a key televised debate this week in Orlando, his third since joining the race.

Perry, the longest continuously serving governor in the U.S., rocketed to the top of the pack of GOP contenders the minute he jumped into the race. But ferocious attacks from his opponents and uneven performances in his first two televised debates have knocked Perry down a few notches in recent national polls. Even in South Carolina, where the southern-boy governor announced his candidacy on Aug. 13 — and has since drawn huge crowds — the race has narrowed considerably.

Perry leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney there by couple of points, within the margin of error, according to a new survey. Recent polls have shown Romney doing better than Perry in head-to-head contests with Barack Obama, though Perry's supporters tend to describe themselves as more enthusiastic.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas and co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune poll, said the Perry campaign is “in the first real rough patch after the honeymoon.”

“This is the adjustment period we all expected,” Henson said. “They are now being confronted with the reality of a competitive race.”

If the sniping has bothered the Texas governor, it doesn’t show. Perry seems to be enjoying his ride in the spotlight and is happy to keep nourishing his image as a brash and plainspoken outsider — even as he works to calm fears within the GOP establishment (and to raise money from it). 

While he has been criticizing the “cocktail circuit” Republicans who seem bothered by his blunt rhetoric on Social Security, Perry hob-nobbed with high-society types himself in Manhattan, where he dined chez Jean Georges and attended the Sherri Hill fashion show as the guest of Donald Trump. Perry, to the delight of the tabloids, was also said to be “excited” about meeting Kardashian sibling Kendall Jenner at the Fashion Week event.

Perry squeezed in a dinner Monday night with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns Fox News. According to The New York Times, Murdoch took Perry to The Post House, a steakhouse near the businessman’s Fifth Avenue apartment. The governor had at least three fundraisers scheduled in New York, including one with a controversial figure of the Wall Street bailout era.

The governor has at least two fundraisers in Florida on Wednesday, one in Fort Lauderdale and the other in Palm Beach, as the campaign races to pile up cash before a Sept. 30 end-of-quarter deadline. The highly anticipated figures will say a lot about Perry’s staying power and reveal how much money the campaign is spending.

But Perry’s next Big Moment looms Thursday, when he will appear for the third time in a nationally televised debate. Sponsored by Fox News, Google and the Florida Republican Party, the debate will be moderated by Fox News correspondent Bret Baier. Anchors Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly will serve as panelists.

With a target on his back as the leading Republican contender, Perry took heat from all sides in the first two debates, and he’s likely to get another round of klieg-light scrutiny on Thursday. At one point in the first debate, sponsored by MSNBC and Politico, Perry said he got so beat up he felt like a “piñata.”

It was even more harsh in the second debate, broadcast on CNN in partnership with the Tea Party Express. Perry faced repeated questions about his decision to issue a 2007 executive order requiring  that teenage girls get vaccinated for the sexually transmitted HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer. His exchange with rival Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann — who suggested he was merely doing the bidding of vaccine maker Merck, which had employed his former chief of staff as a lobbyist — produced what is likely to be one of the most memorable quotes of the 2012 debate season.

“I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry said, sounding as if he could be had for a higher price.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said answers like that have raised doubts about Perry's chances — and raise the stakes of the debate on Thursday night.

Perry needs a “steady performance, fewer gaffes and to keep his Texas-sized feet out of his mouth,” Sabato said. “There is unease about him. People say, ‘I like that Rick Perry, but I’m really nervous that he’s going to blow the election.'”

Florida, where the debate and related events will generate local coverage on top of the national coverage, would not be a good place to experience turbulence. The Sunshine State is shaping up to be a crucial primary, as it was in 2008, when Romney suffered a decisive loss at the hands of eventual nominee John McCain.

Though dates for the nominating contests haven’t been set, Florida GOP officials want it to come soon after the early caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Perry is campaigning hard for Florida and is vigorously participating in this weekend’s Florida Straw Poll. But some of the air has gone out of the contest since Bachmann and Romney have said they would not actively campaign for it.

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