Mackinac Island, Michigan (CNN) - Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be mostly an unknown quantity to the 1,600 or so Republican activists when he speaks to them Saturday at a major Michigan GOP conference. Perry and rival presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Michigan native, are the featured attractions at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on the scenic, upper-peninsula island.
"He is walking into the lion's den. This is important," Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics Newsletter, told CNN. "Everybody is going to be watching his speech very carefully" since it will be Perry's introduction to Republicans in the state.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, not only was born and raised in the state but his father was a popular governor. He launched his 2008 campaign in the state and won its primary that year.
"His ties are arguably as strong (in Michigan) as they are anywhere," Ballenger said. "He already has a leg up on anyone and everyone running against him."
State Republicans said he has built a strong organization in there. Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger and more than 25 other state legislators have endorsed Romney based a lot on his economic background.
"Of all the candidates, he has the most economic experience. Mitt Romney knows what it will take to get the national economy on the right track so that economic recovery is possible for states like Michigan," Bolger said when announcing his endorsement.
The state's unemployment rate in August was 11 percent, down from 11.9 percent in July, but still well above the national average.
With a new GOP governor and control of the state legislature, Republicans are thrilled that the current frontrunners for the nomination are attending the weekend conference and hope it can help lay the groundwork for them to win the state in the general election.
"I think it re-confirms what most of the country knows ... we are a pivotal state," Michigan Republican Party Chairman Robert Schostak told CNN.
Plus, the state will get a lot of media attention thanks to the conference as it tries to play an influential role in choosing the nominee.
The state legislature has voted, because of already planned elections, to hold its Republican primary next year on Feb. 28, making it one of the first contests after the four early major ones in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. However, that primary date would make the state out of compliance with Republican National Committee rules which are trying to force other primaries and caucuses not to occur before March 6.
Depending on whether different candidates split those early contests, Michigan could help strengthen Romney or give Perry a major boost.
"Rick Perry needs to be here to compete here and to compete nationally," Schostak said. "Governor Romney obviously has strong ties here. However, Michigan is showing (to be) a right of center state, very conservative state these days, and I think Gov. Perry is appealing to that voter."
Although some experts said they have not seen much of a Perry organization develop yet in the state, he is working on building one. He will meet with some activists and donors while at the Mackinac Conference, several state Republicans told CNN.
Perry's campaign got a major boost in the state just weeks ago when Rep. Candice Miller, a 5th term congresswoman, endorsed Perry. She actually had to seek out the Perry campaign to volunteer the endorsement.
"I don't think Michigan should be ceded to Mitt Romney, and I know Gov. Perry feels that way. I know they are going to play in Michigan, and they should," Miller told CNN. "At this time, at this point in the campaign he is coming to Mackinac, and I think that is indicative to someone not ceding."
Emphasizing she likes Romney and thinks highly of him she said this election is "not just about a balance sheet" and said she was partly motivated because of his reaction to Perry's "Ponzi scheme" comments regarding Social Security.
That "didn't strike me as outrageous ... it is true," Miller said.
Perry still has a lot of work to do. Romney has already made several campaign stops in the state, including one where he unveiled his health care plan and told the Detroit News recently he would continue to campaign there.
While Perry captured a straw poll at a Macomb County event with several hundred activists attending, a poll from the Marketing Resource Group this week showed 34 percent of respondents supporting Romney, and only 13 percent backing the Texas governor.
Since 1953, Republicans have gathered every two years at the Mackinac conference with state and national Republicans using it as a way to showcase themselves on the national stage. This year's event kicks off Friday with Gov. Rick Snyder. Rising GOP stars South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez are also speaking at this year's event.
National Journal's Hotline and the National Association of Home Builders are sponsoring a presidential straw poll during the conference. All attendees can vote who they favor for the nomination. Candidates who have received at least one percent in national polls will be on the ballot. Also on the ballot is a blank space allowing attendees to put down any name as their choice for the vice presidential nominee.
The results of the straw poll will be announced Sunday morning.
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