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Upcoming GOP debates may help fuel voter interest

Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will join six other candidates

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 11:34 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Olympic chief Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will join six other candidates Sept. 7 when NBC and Politico host a debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Then, it's on to Florida. Sept. 12 as CNN and the Tea Party Express host a debate in Tampa, and Fox News holds a debate Sept. 22 in Orlando.

With the election a little more than a year away, ordinary people, not just insiders, are starting to pay attention to the presidential campaigns. These debates could help shape perceptions about the candidates and set the course for the big-time fundraising ahead.

For months, the shots have been directed at President Obama. Now, with three debates in three weeks, they're firing at each other.

Tea party protesters in New Hampshire are calling Mitt Romney not conservative enough. New frontrunner Rick Perry, the Texas governor, is echoing a similar sentiment.

"We don't need a nominee that's going to blur the differences between themselves and Barack Obama," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "We're gonna have a nominee who draws a clear contrast."

This after Romney zeroed in on Perry.

"Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out," Romney said.

Romney adviser Kirk Jowers said now the GOP will get a chance to see if Perry is for real.

"These debates will go a long way in showing whether Perry has some amount of staying power or if he's 2008's Fred Thompson," said Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

Political observers say Perry's arrival provides a test to Romney, the former frontrunner.

"At some point, you have to give it up and face the primary voters and run in a primary, especially if Rick Perry's doing better in all the polls and rolling right by you," said A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of The Hill newspaper.

The debates will be key in shaping public perception, as will fundraising totals released later in the month.

Candidates like Huntsman's are still trying to break out of the crowded field, said Jowers, a former Huntsman confidante.

"Whatever it is, it just hasn't caught on for Huntsman yet," Jowers said. "Because in those early states like New Hampshire where he has focused, he hasn't been able to catch on in the polls."

Will any other big names get in, like Sarah Palin, or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie? If they were to join the race, that could scramble things up once again.

E-mail: jdaley@desnews.com

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