Opinion: Why Last Night Was the First Debate that Matters

"Perry, Romney Head Into Decisive Third Debate" reads the Fox News story headline on the FOX News/Google debate GOP primary debate happening tonight.  It does seem that this debate is the first debate to actually, well, matter.  The other debates were important, just ask Tim Pawlenty, but this one is the first that will really count.

For one thing, it's now mid-September. It's no longer summer. People aren't grilling or drinking or beaching. They're home on their couches flipping channels under a blanket. Autumn is here and these candidates now have our attention.

For another, the headline makes no mention of Michelle Bachmann or Jon Huntsman or the rest of the longshots.  The time for fantasy candidates, both of conservatives and of the media, is officially over. At this point the only purpose for the other candidates on the stage is to position themselves for possible administration posts. Ron Paul, don't hold your breath.

This has quickly become a two-man race and, short of Sarah Palin making the worst decision of her life and jumping into the contest, that's the way it will stay.

So who needs to do well tonight, Rick Perry or Mitt Romney?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say: both of them. When I said above that this is the time when people will start to really pay attention, I meant that this will be the first time Republican voters will really consider their two options -- and only these two options. No longer distracted by also-rans, almost-rans and not-going-to-run-thanks-very-much, two men will verbally duke it out for our support. My own bias is that I lean Perry right now, or, more accurately, I lean away from Romney, but that could certainly change and I'm not wed to any of these candidates beyond that I want them to defeat President Obama. That, ultimately, is what we'll all really be watching for: who can win next November? All the details of each candidate will start to fade away as Republican voters look at the big picture of who can send Barack Obama back to writing autobiographies Illinois. The one who seems most capable of this will win.

Born in the Soviet Union and raised in Brooklyn, Karol Markowicz is a public relations consultant in NYC and a veteran of Republican campaigns in four states. She blogs about politics at Alarming News and about life in the city with her husband and baby at 212 Baby. She can be followed on Twitter.