Wednesday Republican debate a chance for candidates to emerge

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Romney is expected to come face to face with Perry just as the former Massachusetts governor has been stepping up his efforts to contrast himself with his chief rival. Romney has been emphasizing his private-sector business experience and suggesting it's superior to Perry's, who has held elected office since 1985. Romney also has started drawing distinctions with Perry on immigration: Romney opposed legislation to allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition breaks, while Texas universities allow illegal immigrants to receive those discounts.

Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann will clash once again on Wednesday. (Photo: Associated Press)

Romney was debating a day after unveiling a major economic plan that he is using to sell himself as the candidate with the most business knowhow.

For Bachmann, the debate comes as she's looking to regain traction she lost when Perry entered the race. Both candidates attract support from tea party activists, and the two are competing for the larger share of their votes.

Perhaps foreshadowing debate skirmishing, a group called Keep Conservatives United — unaffiliated with Bachmann's campaign but seemingly working to help her candidacy — ran a TV ad in South Carolina this week that questioned Perry's record on government spending, a key issue with those voters.

Bachmann has a lot on the line.

Since she won a key test vote in Iowa on Aug. 13, Bachmann has faced questions about the true strength of her campaign. Her campaign manager and deputy manager have left her staff. And she's fallen in early state and national polls.

Among others also planning to be on stage were Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has called his rivals extreme, as well as ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Georgia businessman Herman Cain. All have struggled for attention.

Another candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has made waves in recent weeks, coming in a close second in the Iowa straw poll.

In recent days, Paul increasingly has gone after Perry, putting out a TV ad suggesting that Perry wants to unravel Reagan's legacy. It drew a rebuke from Perry's campaign, which said in a statement, "Like President Reagan, Gov. Perry has cut taxes and freed employers from government regulations that kill jobs."

All that is fitting given the debate's location.

Wednesday will be the third time the hilltop library — a shrine to all things Reagan — will provide the backdrop for a Republican presidential debate. Former first lady Nancy Reagan will welcome the candidates.

It's a dramatic setting. The candidates speak within sight of Reagan's jet, Air Force One, and the 40th president is buried on the grounds. The candidates hope to be seen as heirs to the Reagan legacy, while inevitably being measured against it.

It's often said Republicans are in search of the next Reagan — a charismatic conservative with cross-party appeal — and at the library his presence is inescapable.

NBC News and Politico are sponsoring the debate, which will be moderated by NBC News anchor Brian Williams and Politico editor-in-chief John Harris.

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