AUSTIN — Republican presidential contenders tonight will hold their final debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. For Rick Perry, that may be good news since it means he won't have to participate in any more this year.
Perry's stumbles in earlier debates contributed to his nose dive in the polls, prompting the Texas governor to freely acknowledge that he is no champion debater.
Nevertheless, he will be under pressure to turn in a flawless performance tonight in his bid to stoke momentum and climb back into the upper tier before the first-in-the-nation votes in Iowa, which could decide Perry's future as a 2012 presidential candidate.
Fueled by more than $17 million in donations, Perry has signaled his intention to go all out in the countdown to Iowa with a 44-city bus tour, a bombardment of television ads and an invasion of hundreds of Texans, known as the Perry posse, to sing his praises to Iowa voters.
Perry, who posted what was widely regarded as his strongest showing in the Republicans' last debate, suggested in recent interviews that fatigue and back problems may have contributed to his previous weak performances.
The governor had an advanced spinal fusion using adult stem cells in July. In an interview with conservative radio host Sean Hannity, Perry said he would have rescheduled the surgery if he had realized the toll it would take on his political stamina.
He acknowledged that he was fatigued "in the first few debates" but cited his robust performance in the last debate as a sign that he is back on his game and prepared to go the distance.
Analysts say that Perry must be in top form in the Fox News debate in Sioux City, Iowa, to further dampen memories of some his earlier performances, including the infamous "oops" moment in which he forgot one of three agencies that he wanted to eliminate if he becomes president.
"I don't think Perry is going to ... wow anybody in the debate, but he has to come in and not have any self-inflicted wounds, just do good enough that he's not showing up in late night talks shows making some kind of gaffe, " said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The two dominant candidates in the ever-changing Republican nomination battle -- former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- will be in the spotlight in the debate but other candidates will be pushing to get their key themes before the voters.
Gingrich has seemingly overtaken Romney as the Republican front-runner after a weeks-long surge that started in single digits.
Paul coming on strong
Another strong performer is Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson, whose libertarian-style message has attracted a loyal following that propelled him into third place in many polls, stirring talk that he could be within reach of a surprise victory in Iowa.
Perry, by contrast, has been on a downward path after a run as the Republican front-runner in the opening weeks of his campaign. He has slipped into single digits in many polls, sometimes running toward the back of the pack in a Republican field that has dwindled to seven with the departure of Atlanta businessman Herman Cain.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll showed Perry in fifth place with 6 percent. He fared better in a Reuters/Ipsos survey, which placed him in a tie with Paul for third place, with 12 percent each.
With less than three weeks to go, Perry's saturation campaign in Iowa -- as well as his freedom from the debate format -- could offer him the opportunity to capitalize on his skills at personal campaigning and rebound in advance of the caucuses, say analysts.
"It demonstrates he knows he has to spend time in Iowa in the next three weeks. And that's what he does best," said Rachel Paine Caufield, professor of politics at Drake University, noting that Perry has the most extensive on-the-ground schedule of any of the Republican candidates in the countdown to the caucuses.
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