GOP presidential candidates gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday will spar over jobs, the economy and foreign policy – but the televised matchup will become especially tricky if it wanders into two topics related to science: climate change and evolution.

Both inspire fiery debate, pitting science and research against deeply held personal beliefs. Discussing them in a debate is politically tricky, as they’re a recipe for alienating either the conservative evangelicals in the Republican base or the independent voters who must be courted for a 2012 general election victory.

Listening carefully to the answers will be voters and donors with particular financial and political clout – the executives of Silicon Valley, the innovation capital and a haven for green technology.

Nearly all the major Republican candidates disagree with – and in some cases outright mock – the scientific research supporting climate change. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., called it “manufactured science.”

At the same time, several of the candidates put “intelligent design,” a critique that says Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory doesn’t explain some features of the natural world, on par with teaching evolution. Critics say intelligent design is a euphemism for creationism.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a young boy on the campaign trail last month that “we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools – because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” While some Texas teachers might discuss intelligent design, it is not part of the state’s official curriculum.

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