Lynne Sladky, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr, left, shakes hands with Jeb Bush Jr., right, after Bush endorsed Huntsman, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011, in Miami. At center is Ana Navarro, national Hispanic chairperson for Huntsman's campaign.
AMES, Iowa — What a debate warm-up. Mitt Romney created a stir Thursday when he declared to Iowans that "corporations are people." Then Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who could present a major challenge to front-runner Romney, made clear he was entering the race for the Republican president nomination.
It all happened a few hours before the GOP presidential debate in Iowa — an eight-candidate spectacle that was missing the Republican field's newest member. Perry was hundreds of miles away in Austin finalizing plans for a weekend announcement tour.
The two-hour nationally televised debate Thursday night — featuring Romney and seven declared candidates who are trying to emerge as his chief rival — was a highlight of the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.
Capping it all, along with Perry's announcement, will be Saturday's Iowa straw poll. It's an early test of strength for Republicans competing in the state and could well winnow the field.
The nation's teetering economic situation shadowed the debate, with stock market volatility and a downgrade in the nation's credit rating giving Republicans ample opportunities to criticize President Barack Obama. The Democratic president will get his shot to counter the criticism next week during a Midwestern bus tour that will take him through this state that helped launch him on the path to the White House four years ago.
For now, however, the Republicans commanded the spotlight.
Romney, who leads fellow Republicans in national and many state polls, looked to hang on to his front-runner status while seven of his rivals — including Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, both of Minnesota — sought to separate themselves from the packed field and emerge as the chief alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
Bachmann and Pawlenty both hoped for strong debate performances ahead of a straw poll that could make or break their candidacies.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was making his first presidential debate appearance, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul was out to prove his ideas are more mainstream than fringe.
Others struggling to gain traction — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and businessman Herman Cain — sought to promote their issues and perhaps boost their profiles.
Notably absent from the stage were Perry, who was in Texas, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who isn't a candidate but was stoking presidential speculation anew with a visit to the Iowa State Fair.
Even before the debate began, it was a campaign day to remember.
Badgered by hecklers in an appearance at the fair, Romney insisted that "corporations are people," a comment Democrats predicted would be a defining moment of his campaign.
Romney, a wealthy businessman who has struggled with an aloof and elitist image as he tries for the GOP presidential nomination a second time, made the remark while outlining options for reducing the federal deficit and overhauling entitlement programs.
Despite tea party outrage that sometimes focuses on banks and auto companies, Romney has said to applause from GOP audiences that the rights of business are being trampled under Obama to the detriment of the struggling economy. But in Thursday's audience, the line encountered resistance.
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A few hours after Romney's awkward moment, Perry spokesman Mark Miner confirmed that the Texas governor would announce that he was running for president while in early primary states on Saturday.
Perry's candidacy is certain to upend the race, and he could challenge Romney for the role of jobs-focused candidate.
The conservative governor is seen as a potential bridge between the party's social and economic wings.
Though undeclared as a candidate, he has been lining up donors and establishing contacts in early voting states such as Iowa. He hosted a national day of prayer in Houston last week, a nod to the strength of evangelical conservatives, an influential force in Iowa.