Republican presidential candidates officially in the race are scheduled to attend. This will be the first debate appearance for Rick Perry, and the first debate that Tim Pawlenty will not attend (because he quit the race last month).
Perry will be the center of attention. Despite the fact that Perry leads the national primary polls, many Republican primary voters will be seeing the man for the first time at this debate. The pressure will be on Perry to prove he has the intelligence and presidential demeanor necessary to be an electable candidate.
There's some speculation that Perry may opt out of the debate at the last moment, due to the problem with wildfires in Texas, where Perry still serves as governor. If Perry chose not to attend, he would be badly damaged. Not only would he be viewed as a coward, but it would set a dangerous precedent. Perry will continue to serve as governor of Texas all through the primary season and the general election, should he become the Republican nominee. If Perry were to stop campaigning each time something occurs in Texas, he could be viewed as an unreliable candidate.
Assuming Perry attends--and perhaps even if he does not--it will be important to see how the other candidates interact with Perry. Michele Bachmann must attack Perry in order to gain ground against him in Iowa, which is a do-or-die contest for her. Perry will be forced to handle Bachmann. He must parry her attacks without appearing too condescending. He must also avoid counter-attacking in such a way that he appears too negative, as Tim Pawlenty learned during the August debate.
Mitt Romney must decide whether or not to attack Perry. As we argued a few days ago, it's not in Romney's best interest to be the deliverer of the "Perry is a RINO" message, since he would appear hypocritical and invite counter-attacks from Perry. But Romney's advisors may be feeling too much pressure from the national polls where Perry leads Romney.
As always, it will also be important to see how Romney handles any attacks against Romneycare, which continues to be his chief liability. He has managed to glide past the issue several times before, but the fact that it can be brought back again and again is evidence that Romney's best strategy would have been to disavow Romneycare and admit it was a mistake.
The other candidates in the race will have a major challenge: They must find a way to break out of the mold of the three-way race developing among Bachmann, Perry, and Romney. To become relevant, they need to build themselves up, but fewer people will be paying attention. They may decide to dogpile on Perry, which is a traditional development when one candidate leads in all the national polls.