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The Brief: Oct. 18, 2011

If Gov. Rick Perry can make it through tonight's Republican debate unscathed, he might be in the clear.

Gov. Rick Perry at the Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College on Oct. 11, 2011.

The Big Conversation:

If Gov. Rick Perry can make it through tonight's Republican debate unscathed, he might be in the clear.

Perry has spent the past few weeks on the defense over issues like illegal immigration, Social Security and his 2007 vaccine mandate. But shaky debate performances have proven especially damaging for the governor, who has dropped precipitously in polls since last month. Looking for a comeback last week at a debate in New Hampshire, Perry instead struggled for the spotlight.

Tonight in Las Vegas, in Perry's fifth debate as a presidential candidate, the stakes remain high, but the governor may lie low to avoid any further damage. As the Tribune's Jay Root reports, if Perry can avoid a loss, he'll have several weeks before the next debate, set for Nov. 9, to play to his strengths — retail politics and TV ads — on the campaign trail.

“Debates are a good topic for pundits in Washington,” Perry spokesman Mark Miner told the Tribune. “But when it comes down to it, people want to hear and see the candidates first hand in these early primary states. That’s where Gov. Perry is at his best.”

How he'll navigate the debate stage remains uncertain.

“He’s tried to be assertive, and he’s tried to be submissive, and neither one has worked,” Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told the Tribune. “We’ll see if they come up with a new formula.”

Still, don't expect to see Perry the Wallflower at tonight's debate. The Houston Chronicle reports that the governor, whom fellow Republicans have attacked for supporting a 2001 Texas law granting in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigration, plans to focus on border security as part of an immigration counteroffensive.

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

Culled:

  •  The New York Times reports that the Perry campaign may have underpaid to use a Texas businessman's private jet in August. The Perry camp paid the businessman, Brian Pardo, about $21,000 for two days of flights, but campaign-finance experts say election regulations require presidential candidates to pay the same rate that a charter company would charge to rent its aircraft — which would have cost the Perry campaign several times as much. The possible underpayment, the Times notes, could constitute an unreported campaign contribution.
  • U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Houston Chronicle reports, has filed an amendment to a federal spending bill that would cut all funding for any program that resembles the botched firearm-trafficking sting known as Operation Fast and Furious, where agents lost track of 1,400 Mexico-bound guns, two of which were found at the scene of a murder of a Border Patrol agent.
  • Use the Tribune's new interactive visualization to see where Rick Perry's been collecting the most money — and how his hauls stack up against those of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. A new news app also allows you to search Perry's third-quarter donors and expenditures.

"He's spreading conspiracy-theory rumors about me working with Republicans to draw him out of a job." — State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, in a new web video, on U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Castro's opponent for the Democratic nomination in Congressional District 35. As the Austin American-Statesman reports, the race has quickly intensified, with both candidates now taking shots at each other over redistricting.

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