Rick Perry Hovers Over GOP Debate Tonight

In this Aug. 6, 2011 file photo, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks in Houston. Perry's spokesman said Thursday that Perry is running for president. (AP Photo / David J. Phillip, File)

AMES, Iowa -- Eight Republican presidential candidates will be lined up Thursday night on stage in the Hilton Coliseum, the concrete basketball arena/tornado shelter at Iowa State University, for an important televised debate sponsored by the state party and Fox News.

It turns out there’ll be a ninth contender in the room – not physically present, but very much a factor. Texas Gov. Rick Perry will make clear on a visit Saturday to South Carolina that he is running for president, a spokesman said.

That, strategists agree, raises the stakes of the debate considerably. Perry’s announcement will overshadow the Saturday results of the Ames straw poll, where tea party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann has been expected to do well. Fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, the former governor, has not been able to get much traction and needs a strong debate performance to begin turning around his campaign.

The encounter is to be broadcast from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. EDT on FOX News.

Front-runner Mitt Romney will try to avoid damage and then brace for the challenge of Perry’s bid to become the vehicle for the (mostly conservative) forces in the party who want to an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney’s day Thursday got off to a rough start when he got into a snippy shouting match with a heckler at the Iowa State Fair. He also caused a stir by saying "corporations are people." Look for that in Democratic ads if he gets the nomination.

Also participating in the debate are former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian icon; pizza magnate Herman Cain; and, for the first time on the national debate stage, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Huntsman is not participating in the straw poll or competing in Iowa’s caucuses. Romney is also skipping the straw poll.

GOP insiders expect Paul to do well, and possibly win, the straw poll, saying he has had a highly developed organization in the state to deliver supporters.