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Opinion: In Reagan Debate, Romney Must Fend off Also-Rans and Contend with Perry

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Presidential primary debates are often more spectacle than substance. With eight candidates jockeying to be heard, there isn't much room for real debate. They will all see the two greatest threats to America as President Obama and taxes (they might differ in which order). They will all compete to slash taxes, as they already previewed this weekend in South Carolina.

And they will repeatedly hit whatever buzz-words pollsters say make the dials leap. In tonight's case, as they stand in front of the airplane that is the centerpiece of the Reagan Library, you can bet that if you're playing a debate-watch drinking game, "Reagan" will get you loaded.

In fact, Mitt Romney - pre-empting tonight's debate and tomorrow's presidential address on jobs - already called for "Reagan Economic Zones" in his own economic speech. Proving once again that Romney blows that dog whistle harder than anyone…in part because he can't hear it as clearly.

This is not to say that primary debates are irrelevant. There is one result they accomplish very well: They teach a front-runner to be careful what he wishes for.

When you're the front-runner, that's a great place to be for fund-raising, invitations to party functions and stealing the headlines. The culture of a debate, though, is like traveling through the looking glass. You are now the target.

All of the other candidates, struggling to be noticed, will pick fights with you. Furthermore, no matter how big you think you are, you're now sharing a stage with Herman Cain and Ron Paul. You'll get more questions, but it's the answers of those guys who have nothing to lose that can make your time less comfortable. And of course, there are higher expectations of you that you can never meet, while all your rivals need to do is stand their ground to exceed expectations and earn a remarkable amount of media attention, as Michele Bachmann did in her first debate.

Romney has learned this. The presumptive front-runner thought he could just keep his gait steady and eyes steely and it would all be his. But debates are where is center-right two-step looks the most awkward. He now finds himself competing to be mentioned in the same breath as the new front-runner Rick Perry, rather than in a list alongside Bachmann.

John Huntsman also felt the pressure. Though never the frontrunner, his highly anticipated candidacy might have made him the victim of Fred Thompson Syndrome - in which one's game-changing expectations became an actual non-factor. His first debate performance was forgettable and thus his candidacy became so as well (except when he stirred the pot by tweeting that scientists might be right and in doing so earned the derision of the far-right.)

Then came Rick Perry, whose ballyhooed entrance to the race actually did change the dynamics. His impact isn't because he took the fight to the Fed, suggesting Bernanke might commit treasonous acts, or because he took the fight to scientists over globally warming. Those are sideshows, but the real story is his polling: A commanding lead over the rest of his field among GOP voters.

Which means that his rivals need to bring the fight to him. But will they? If Romney realizes he has a battle on his hands, he might take it out on Bachmann to ensure it becomes a Perry-Romney race down the road. Gingrich might focus his ammo on Romney to establish himself as the real conservative among the candidates liked by Party Elders. Santorum will fight mostly with the moderators to acknowledge that he's in the race.

Whether Perry becomes a target or eludes the direct hit as all the candidates focus on the president in advance of tomorrow's speech, he will still be the center of media discussion. If he says too much, there will be more opportunities for a flub. If he says too little, he could become the next Romney or Huntsman - in the pack, but not at the head of it.

Other than seeing how the newest frontrunner reacts, though, the debate doesn't promise much in the way of surprises. With the economy weak, they all have an obvious target. With Obama's approval ratings low, they have a common focus. And with Reagan's airplane behind them, they have the magic buzzword.

Or maybe one of them will note that President Reagan signed tax increases into law multiple times... that would be a surprise that would make the debate worth watching.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."