Former President Ronald Reagan was fond of evoking the so-called 11th Commandment — "thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."
But at Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate at Reagan's official library in Simi Valley, the well-known directive may go unheeded.
Local political scientists say former front-runner Mitt Romney could go on the attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who since entering the race a few weeks ago has rocketed ahead of the former Massachusetts governor to take a commanding lead among the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls.
The Washington Post reported last week that Romney's advisers said their candidate will launch an offensive against Perry "at a time of our choosing."
"I think Romney has a strategic calculation to make," said Robert Kaufman, a political science professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu. "It's not self-evident he will go on the attack. What he may do is wait and try to let other people take the burden of going on the attack against Perry."
Also confirmed for the 5 p.m. debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum are Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former pizza magnate Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Kaufman said Bachmann may come out swinging at Perry first since "she has every incentive to attack him." Both are vying for the hard right Tea Party vote. Romney is seen as more moderate.
"I do think, however, that Romney will be making a mistake by waiting too long in attacking Rick Perry," Kaufman said. "Perry has all the momentum. And I think it's a two-person race" between Perry and Romney. "So sooner or later, Romney has to take Perry head-on."
Sean Kelly, a political science professor at CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo, isn't so sure Romney will go after Perry on Wednesday night.
"Romney wants to play this front-runner thing and a front-runner doesn't engage his direct competition," Kelly said. "He goes after the person who he's going to run against in the general election. And it's popular with the people who are going to be watching because they all hate (President Barack) Obama and you're going to throw them red meat and that's going to work for you.
"The flip side of that is Romney was almost immediately replaced when Perry got in and lost that sheen of being the front-runner," Kelly said. "So does he risk losing that (permanently) by not attacking Perry?"
Kaufman said the debate's stakes are arguably the highest for Perry, who likely will be reaching his largest national audience since declaring Aug. 13.
"How he handles himself will be a significant watershed for him in the campaign," Kaufman said.
Minor GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger, a gay rights activist who served as a senior consultant to the campaigns of Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, wants to participate in the debate, but hasn't been invited. He recently sent a letter to the Reagan Foundation asking to be included.
"Let America see a true Reagan Republican on the televised debate," he wrote. "I promise to invoke President Reagan's memory and spirit at every turn, like no other Republican candidate for president can.
"President Reagan was more than my boss; he was my mentor."
Foundation spokeswoman Melissa Giller did not return a phone call seeking comment.
But she said previously that to be included in the debate, a candidate must receive at least 4 percent support in one of eight major national polls of preferred GOP presidential hopefuls. Karger has not achieved that.
The debate is being sponsored by the foundation, NBC News and Politico.com. It will be broadcast starting at 5 p.m. on cable television channel MSNBC and streamed online at Politico.com. The Star also will have extensive print and online coverage. The library is closed to the public Wednesday.