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Tonight's Republican debate may really be between 2 Texans, Rick Perry and Ron Paul

September 7, 2011 |  5:18 am

Republicans Governor Rick Perry and Representative Ron Paul of Texas

Eight Republicans will line up for the debate in the shadow of Ronald Reagan's Air Force One in his presidential library this evening.

But the most interesting debate dynamic will likely be between the two Texans onstage with the same pair of initials -- Rick Perry, the governor, and Ron Paul, the representative.

This was supposed to be the second GOP panel for Perry, the late-comer and new front-runner. But he pulled out of Sen. Jim DeMint's values forum in South Carolina Monday to fly home and be governor during the giant state's wild wildfires.

Tonight, everyone will pay verbal tribute to Ronald Reagan, who might have some trouble winning the presidential nomination of the new Grand Old Party these days. The debate will be carried live on MSNBC at 5 p.m. Pacific.

Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will be asked about their jobs plans. Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich will chime in. For an interesting look at the surviving GOP field, check out Chris Stirewalt's perceptive rundown here.

Obama will be a certain target but less so because Republican House Speaker John Boehner saved the Democrat from himself. Obama wanted to talk jobs tonight too to a joint session of Congress. Boehner suggested Thursday was better and the president acquiesced.

Cross-state rivals Perry and Paul have already been sniping at each other. The 11-term congressman has criticized the nation's longest-serving governor as not a real conservative and dismissing him as more of the status quo.Texas Republican governor Rick Perry listens to wildfire victim Cindy Cruz in Bastrop 9-5-11

Tuesday Perry's surprisingly well-organized camp fired a salvo at Paul, citing his 1987 resignation letter from the Republican Party in which he criticized the president now entombed just steps from tonight's debate site.

"There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government," Paul wrote near the end of Reagan's second term before Paul ran for president on the Libertarian ticket. "That is the message of the Reagan years."

“It will be interesting," a Perry spokesman suggestively suggested, "to hear Rep. Paul explain why Reagan drove him from the party at tomorrow’s debate on the grounds of the Reagan Library."

Recent polls have confirmed Perry's rapid surge to the front of the Republican field. He appears to have most hurt Bachmann, another tea party favorite who can be expected to attack. A Gallup Poll this week found Perry and Romney to be about equally well-liked among Republicans (seven-out-of-ten).

But Gallup's intensity score gives Perry twice the rating of Romney, 25-12.

A larger question many ask is how good is Perry at debating? Put another way, how bad can he be? He's never lost an election.

It's still almost a year out from the GOP convention in Tampa. Ahh, Florida in August. Who wouldn't want to wear funny hats in that weather?

But this month is already crucial. It's the last in the second quarter of campaign fundraising. We'll soon see how big a money bump Bachmann got for winning the Ames Straw Poll. If Paul's $1.6 money-bomb was a one-day explosion?

And how big are the bundles being assembled by Perry's reputed hundreds of newly-recruited, enthusiastic bundlers, including some well-connected folks in California, where Perry will forage for cash all day Thursday.

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-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: David J. Phillip / Associated Press (Perry, left); Mary Ann Chastain / Associated Press (Paul); Alberto Martinez / Associated Press (Perry listens to wildfire victim Cindy Cruz in Bastrop, Sept. 5).

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