The debate prep is in full swing as Texas pugilists Ted Cruz and Rick Perry prepare to do battle Thursday night – but not with each other and not even on the same stage.
The first official GOP presidential debate debuts in Cleveland but Sen. Cruz will be on the main bill of top 10 candidates at 9 p.m. and former Gov. Perry will be at a 5 p.m. event with six others, including Carly Fiorina who has dubbed it “the happy hour debate.”
Fox News, which will air the two debates, set the criteria that the top 10 of 17 major candidates ranked in major national polls would be on the primetime debate. Cruz made the cut, ranked eighth but left Perry, ranked 11th, as the central figure on the early debate, which Fox is calling a forum.
Cruz, who was a champion debater at Princeton University, will be in his element while Perry will be vying for attention in the less visible event.
Perry tweeted “I look forward to being @FoxNews 5pm debate for what will be a serious exchange of ideas & positive solutions to get America back on track.”
His supporters also put the best face on Perry being relegated to the earlier event.
“There are pros and cons to being in either debate,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC member who is an adviser to the Perry campaign. “The earlier debate is an opportunity for him to demonstrate he has command of the issues. That’s a hurdle he has to get over, given the last campaign.”
Perry was a late entrant to the 2012 presidential campaign and after a strong start stumbled badly in a debate. He couldn’t name the three federal agencies he would eliminate, famously saying “oops.”
Barbour, who is a nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Henry Barbour, said that Perry has been preparing for years, studying issues and policies. In the days leading up to the Fox debate, “he has done several mock debates,” said Henry Barbour. “He’s had people peppering him with questions.”
Dave Carney, a political consultant who worked with Perry for many years until being let go in the 2012 campaign, gave a sneering assessment of Perry being in the early debate. “Of course those who play in the Pro Bowl think that’s great,” he said of the all-star National Football Leage game. “One thing about Pro Bowlers, in the NFL they’re not playing in the Super Bowl.”
And Fox News, as well as the political class, is certainly treating Thursday’s debate as the campaign Super Bowl.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, thinks that Perry has a lot at stake, and being shut out of the prime time debate will hurt him, especially after his high profile attacks on frontrunner Donald Trump.
“My bet is Perry will go after Trump even at the kids’ table, in an attempt to create the prime headline for the secondary debate and get lots of attention. If Perry fails to make it into the September CNN debate, that will be all she wrote for his candidacy. His failure to make the prime-time debate is already devastating.”
Sabato sees Cruz as being handed a winning opportunity although his campaign said he is practicing constantly.
“This is the opportunity Cruz has been waiting for,” said Sabato. “He’s the most accomplished debater on the stage. He’s likely to use every one of his approximately ten minutes well. Some of the other candidates tend to, well, wander.”
Texas State Sen. Konni Burton, a GOP Cruz protégé from the Fort Worth area, predicts that he will focus on “the brokenness of Washington.” One issue she thinks Cruz will bring up: the Planned Parenthood videos secretly done by anti-abortion groups that allegedly show workers discussing the sale of aborted baby parts. Planned Parenthood has said the videos are heavily edited and that the organization does not sell the parts but gets paid for transport to researchers.
“What I see in the years I’ve been helping him, he’s a very smart, intelligent guy who does everything to the nth degree,” said Burton.