AUSTIN, Texas — It's all about Rick Perry now.
In a few short weeks as a candidate, the folksy Texas governor has surged to the head of the pack seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and the right to challenge President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Next week, Perry goes face to face with his Republican rivals for the first time. Their prime-time debate Wednesday at the Reagan Library in California will be the first of five clashes over six weeks that will test his lead and define the GOP race, if not the party, heading into the primary voting next winter.
The overall direction of the party is already clear: Republicans want to cut federal spending, repeal the national health care law and reduce taxes to create jobs. The question is which candidate has the best record signaling that he or she could do all that, and the best chance of defeating Obama.
Among the tests Perry faces as the new front-runner: Will the Republican Party rally behind another Texan so soon after George W. Bush? Will Perry's boasts of creating jobs while keeping his state's budget tight withstand the scrutiny of his peers? And how will he do onstage alongside such rivals as former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.?
"The big focus now is on how Rick Perry does," said Keith Appell, a veteran conservative strategist who's not allied with any of the campaigns.
"The trick in presidential politics is exceeding expectations. Given his successful entry, expectations will be higher than usual. The onus will be on him to exceed. If he does, he can really cement his lead. If he doesn't, if the others outshine him, it throws the race back into more of a contest."
Mindful of that, Perry advisers insist that Romney is still the front-runner and say that Perry isn't at his best in debates.
"He has turned in solid performances over the years, but it is not his preferred venue for outlining his record and policy initiatives," Perry aide Ray Sullivan said.
"We still think Mitt Romney is the front-runner," Sullivan said. "He's been running for five years and he has a fundraising and organizational advantage in part as a result of that long-standing campaign."
Romney in particular will be under great pressure to take on Perry. Romney had been the nominal front-runner for months, but he watched his narrow lead in national polls collapse almost overnight once Perry got in.
Bachmann, too, may feel the need to take on Perry. She'd surged to the top tier with a lead in first-voting Iowa only to see Perry immediately start competing for the same support among tea party and social conservatives.
In a preview of what's to come in the next several weeks, candidates and their allies started taking shots at Perry this week and contending they're more conservative or more capable.
A political committee that supports Bachmann, for example, unveiled a hard-hitting ad it plans to air in South Carolina, a primary battleground.
"Rick Perry doubled spending in a decade, and this year Rick Perry's spending more than the state takes in, covering his deficits with record borrowing," says the ad from Keep Conservatives United, a North Carolina-based group.
"And he's supposed to be the conservative?" the ad says as a picture of Bachmann appears. "There IS an honest conservative — and she's not Rick Perry."
Romney, meanwhile, rolled into Perry's backyard in San Antonio and drew a sharp line between his resume and that of people such as Perry, without mentioning the governor's name.
"I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy," Romney said. "Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don't know how to get us out."
Romney, who worked as a successful investment banker, served one four-year term as Massachusetts governor. Perry, who's also farmed, has been in public office since 1984, and has been governor since late 2000.
Publicly, Romney claims to be largely unconcerned about Perry and says he won't change his campaign to react to the Texan. It's a "rose garden" strategy of trying to appear the inevitable nominee by limiting his personal campaigning and refusing to engage with his Republican rivals.
"I'm following the strategy I've had, and it's one that we've laid out from the beginning," Romney said during a recent swing through New Hampshire. "If you're running for president, your focus should be on who is president and his failures and who's going to make America better."
Yet Romney's not only lost his nominal lead in national polls, he's also vulnerable even in New Hampshire, where he's led in his New England backyard.
"I'd expect him to be way ahead, but I don't get a sense that he is," said Republican state Rep. Tony Soltani of Epsom, N.H.
Romney's already broadening his reach. After keeping an arm's length from the conservative tea party movement, for example, Romney will appear before a tea party rally in New Hampshire on Sunday and then at a forum Monday in South Carolina by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC., a tea party icon.
"This may be a blessing for him," Appell said. "It forces him to run more as an underdog. He has to more clearly convey a rationale for his candidacy. And it gives him an opportunity to play to some of his strengths, like the fact that he was a CEO."
Bachmann also will have to adapt to Perry's surge.
After a strong debate performance in June and winning a Republican straw poll in Iowa in August, she seized the lead in that state, the site of the first nominating caucuses, and leapt into the top tier.
Now polls suggest that she's lost support to Perry.
She still aims to win Iowa, is essentially skipping New Hampshire, then hopes to win in South Carolina and Florida. Her campaign refused to talk to McClatchy, which publishes newspapers across South Carolina and Florida.
"She's losing a significant amount of support to Rick Perry. She's got to get them back," Appell said. "Part of the reason is they see him as just as good on the issues and more of a seasoned campaigner and chief executive. ... She has to get those people back."
(Montgomery reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Thomma reported from Washington. David Goldstein and David Lightman contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2011