Romney and Perry Will Be Focus of Tampa Debate

Eight Republican presidential candidates will debate in Tampa, Florida tonight in a debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express.

The debate will largely be focused on the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, both of whom have engaged in a battle over the potential political perils of touching social security, often referred to as one of the third-rails of politics.

Last week, at the Reagan Library debate, Perry referred to social security as a “Ponzi scheme” in need of reform.  Immediately, Romney pounced on Perry’s comments and insinuated that such comments may allow Democrats to characterize Republicans as the party that wants to kill Social Security, potentially allowing Democrats to take important swing states such as Florida. 

While Florida is always important in a general election, the state may be of more importance in the 2012 primary. And Perry’s comments about Social Security will test to see if the GOP primary electorate, especially fiscal conservatives, will be comfortable with a candidate who is so open about overhauling a system nearly everyone agrees is in need of reform. 

Also of note is that while Romney, and others such as Jon Huntsman, will not participate in the “Presidency V” Straw Poll in Florida on September 24, Perry will. Should Perry win that Straw Poll, it may add to the narrative that his comments about Social Security, even in Florida, may not be as toxic as the Republican establishment seems to think they will be. 

“Florida is very important to me, and I am looking forward to bringing my pro-jobs conservative message to Florida and the Presidency V straw poll events,” Perry said in a statement last week. “I have also assembled a strong team of Florida Republican professionals to help carry my record and vision for job creation and fiscal conservatism to the voters of the Sunshine State.”

During the debate, look for Romney to challenge Perry on social security and to potentially blunt the momentum Perry is currently riding. 

On Sean Hannity’s radio show, Romney said: 

“I am for Social Security. I want to save Social Security. It is an essential safety net for the American people. And number two, it is terrible politics. If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party.”

This debate will also give other candidates a chance to elbow their way into the conversation.

Michele Bachmann may attack Perry’s comments on social security, which would be a peculiar move because it would seem to help Romney at the cost of Bachmann perhaps losing some of the Tea Party affiliated voters that have been drawn to her campaign.

Ron Paul, who seemed to irritate Perry at the last debate, may attack Perry’s conservative credentials. 

Paul’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, sent an e-mail last week excoriating Perry’s conservative credentials by accusing Perry of still acting like a Democrat. 

Benton wrote that Perry “supported Hillary Clinton’s health care plan,” “pushed for a federal bailout and stimulus funds,” “supported welfare for illegal immigrants,” forcibly tried to “vaccinate 12-year-old girls against sexually transmitted diseases by Executive Order,” and “raised taxes twice” while “Texas’ state debt has more than doubled during” Perry’s tenure as governor. 

Benton wrote that despite all that is “inconsistent with how most Republicans understand conservatism,” Perry is “trying to swagger his way into the Tea Party.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will have another opportunity to contrast his record as Utah’s governor with those of Perry’s and Romney’s. 

Rick Santorum, who attacked Perry over his Executive Order regarding the Gardasil vaccine during the last debate, may bring that up again.

And businessman Herman Cain, a favorite of the Tea Party because he is not a politician and succeeded in the private sector where he turned around businesses many thought were doomed to failure, should get some more time to further explain some of his economic proposals such as his “9-9-9” plan (replacing the federal tax system with a 9 percent sales, income, and corporate tax) and his social security proposals modeled after Chile’s. 

At the end of the night, there may be two winners.

First, between Romney and Perry, the person that comes away most unscathed may be the winner. Perry may be attacked from his fellow presidential rivals. Romney may be attacked from questions asked by the audience and on Twitter. Many Tea Party voters distrust Romney and view him and his record, especially RomneyCare, as being antithetical to the spirit of the Tea Party. 

Second, the candidate who best elbows their way into the Perry-Romney conversation will be the second winner coming out of the debate.