If there is steak beneath the Rick Perry campaign's sizzle, he'll have to start proving it in the coming week. The Republican governor of Texas has joined a crowded presidential field, and will enter the fray in earnest on Wednesday, for the first of three primary debates in 16 days. Those clashes could determine whether Perry permanently supplants former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the Republican front-runner.

Perry has to score some points on Wednesday, campaign watchers tell the Associated Press, which runs with a weekender about Perry's chances of going from flavor of the month to leader.

 

That opening debate "will be most critical" for Perry because "it will be his first time out," said Terry Nelson, a campaign strategist who had worked for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, now out of the 2012 race.

Perry's entrance has riveted political insiders and led to talk of how Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, should respond. It also siphoned off some of the buzz surrounding Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite previously considered by many observers to be Romney's chief rival.

But GOP strategists warn that it's very earl, and polls at this stage are often poor predictors of what's to come in next year's voting to pick a nominee.

"There's movement all over the place," said Kevin Madden, an unpaid adviser to Romney and a veteran of several campaigns.

At this stage in the 2008 presidential cycle, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani topped national Republican polls, followed by ex-Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Both men faded fast.

Romney's still pursuing a calm, front-runner's strategy, saving most barbs for President Obama, the AP notes. But that is seemingly in the process of changing. Witness the speech Romney gave Friday in Tampa, in which he posted about taking a hard line against illegal immigration, damning Perry by contrast, if not by name. From the Miami Herald's account:

“We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration,’’ Romney told more than 100 people attending a Republican Hispanic conference. “As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and I strengthened the authority our state troopers had to enforce existing immigration laws.”

Romney, 64, never mentioned by name the Texas governor, who leads Romney in most national polls as well as in early primary and caucus states. But immigration is a new issue of focus for Romney this election cycle, and his campaign knows Perry, 61, is already facing criticism from conservatives for not taking a hard-enough line.

For instance, in 2001 Perry signed a version of the DREAM Act that made Texas the first state to allow in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants — much like the bill Romney boasted of killing in Massachusetts.

Count Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in the flash-in-the-pan camp. Perry's poll numbers will fall once voters learn more about him, Paul told the AP.

“He was the one saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m all for secession,’ and that kind of talk,” Paul told the Associated Press referring to a 2009 interview  in which Perry said there was no reason for Texas to secede from the union, but suggested it was a possibility if Washington political leaders continued to “thumb their nose at the American people.”

“The only thing I would advise is looking into him, looking at his record, and not just taking him at face value. Texas has had a lot of changes in these last eight years, not exactly positive either,” Paul said.

A new dose of ammunition against Perry could come from The Wall Street Journal, which reported Saturday that Perry had accepted campaign-related trips on a private plane owned by a businessman now under investigation for securities fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The folks on Perry's side of the primary electorate are not holding back either, as The Washington Post noted in its coverage of an "anyone but Romney" attitude growing among those associated with the Tea Party movement.

“I think the message from the tea party in New Hampshire is, “We’re not useful idiots,’ ” one activist told The Post.

“There’s this long tradition in the Republican Party to simply elect the next guy in line. That’s how we got John McCain, and that’s how we got Mitt Romney. If somebody says that early and often, you have a better potential to see if somebody can emerge as a true competitor to Romney.”

That dispute will get its first chance to flower in real time at Wednesday's Republican debate. With no meddling from a presidential speech on job creation, either.

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