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GOP debate in Orlando is round 3 of Mitt Romney-Rick Perry

It's round three for Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. But Thursday night's debate in Orlando could be strike three for the other Republican presidential candidates.

After two shots at Perry, the lesser-known rivals have their last major chance to remain relevant at the nationally televised debate. But this could also be Perry's last moment as a clear front-runner as Romney and the rest of the crew go after the Texas governor.

In case there's any doubt about the state of the race in Florida, about 3,500 Republican Party of Florida's elected leaders, insiders and grass-roots activists will render a verdict Saturday at the Presidency 5 straw-poll mock election — a vote that has historically favored the national party's nominee for president.

"What you're going to see is a separation of the top-tier candidates from everyone else. That's going to be the key," said Alex Patton, a Gainesville Republican consultant and with War Room Logistics, a new polling firm.

A poll released Wednesday from Patton's firm showed that Perry and Romney are tied, each garnering 25 percent of likely Republican primary voters.

Romney, though, looks like the best candidate to take President Barack Obama, statistically tying the Democrat by a 45-44 percent split in the poll. Obama beats Perry 48-40 in a theoretical matchup.

The other candidates are in the single digits, with Newt Gingrich in third at 9 percent, followed by Ron Paul at 8, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain at 5, Jon Huntsman 2 and Rick Santorum 1.

For the first time, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson will be included in the debate, but his name won't be on the straw-poll ballot partly because the party didn't expect him on stage.

Ed Rollins, former campaign adviser for the now-fading Bachmann, said one of the most significant aspects of the debate is the host: FOX, the most-influential cable news station for Republicans.

"If I was still advising Bachmann, this is the one I'd really want to do best in," Rollins said. "Florida is a television state. It's a media state. It's not a state like Iowa where you can really do retail politics effectively."

Though the straw poll and debate will boost the front-runners and further hamstring the also-rans, Rollins said he doesn't expect anyone to drop out before the Iowa caucus this winter.

Rollins said the straw poll might not be an accurate predictor of the Republican electorate because those who cast ballots, called "delegates," are activists who likely have their minds made up.

"Florida is the ultimate state," said Rollins. "If you don't win Florida, you're not going to win the presidency if you're a Republican. At the end of the day, it's a state where people pay attention."

The pressure is on Perry, said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who advises Gov. Rick Scott.

Fabrizio said the straw poll heightens the stakes of the debate for everyone, but Perry has wooed delegates and raised expectations about the strength of his candidacy.

"Would it be a big surprise if Romney won the straw poll? If that happens, and it comes on the heels of a bad performance by Perry, it could be disastrous," Fabrizio said. "Perry has little to gain here. He's the front-runner, he's the target. Unless he can score a really significant blow on Romney, he's playing defense. And since people believe Perry's going to win the straw poll — if he doesn't then it's a problem."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will probably be debated for the first time, Fabrizio noted. He said he expects Romney and the others will try to make Perry look like a lightweight on foreign policy and Social Security. They'll probably bash Perry on immigration and spending as well.

Perry supporters indicate he'll hit back at Romney for reversals on gay rights and abortion. Also, they note that Texas created more jobs under Perry than Massachusetts did when Romney was governor.

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos said the fellow Republican delegates he has spoken to have so far given Perry "a pass." But now the honeymoon is over.

Though Perry has the right tone and a command of "one-liners," Haridopolos said, the Texas governor needs to show more.

"They're going to expect more out of Perry, a little more depth," said Haridopolos, a political-science lecturer at the University of Florida who dropped out of Florida's Republican U.S. Senate race this summer.

"Perry's speaking to the anger and disappointment of the Republican base," he said. "But to close the deal, he's going to have to talk about his ideas to not just defeat Obama but move the country in the right direction. … We will lose if we run the Bob Dole campaign in 1996 — the anti-Clinton campaign. In this case, the only anti-Obama campaign."

Romney and the others have downplayed expectations by saying they won't participate in the straw poll.

But their names will all be on the ballot, they'll be debating at Presidency 5 and they'll address Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference that takes place between the Thursday debate and the Saturday vote.

Patton, the Republican pollster, said the Presidency 5 straw poll and debate take on added significance depending on when a special committee sets the date of Florida's early presidential primary, where the state's Republicans chose their nominee at the ballot box.

A February primary date would give the Florida straw poll winner access to more fundraisers, momentum and name recognition for a state campaign that could cost $4 million in the final month.

"That's where you separate out the wheat from the chaff," Patton said. "You're going to get a week, week and half of coverage from this debate and vote," he said, adding a reference to the boisterous tea party crowd in the Sept. 12 Tampa debate: "If some dude in the crowd screams, 'Let 'em die!' you could have three weeks of coverage."

GOP debate tonight in Orlando

Time/TV: 9-11 p.m., Fox News.

Where: Orange County Convention Center.

Hosts: Fox News and Google.

Participants: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Moderated by Bret Baier of Fox News' Special Report.

GOP debate in Orlando is round 3 of Mitt Romney-Rick Perry 09/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 6:54pm]
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