GOP Presidential Hopefuls To Debate In Tampa

For the second time in less than a week, the field of GOP presidential hopefuls will meet for a debate. This one takes place Monday in Tampa, Fla. And it's notable in that it's the first presidential debate with a Tea Party group as a co-sponsor. CNN is the media partner for the event. When the candidates squared off last week, there was some lively sparring over Social Security and health care. There will likely be more of that Monday. For more, Michele Norris talks to NPR's Don Gonyea.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: For the second time in less than a week, the field of GOP presidential hopefuls will meet for a debate. This one takes place tonight in Tampa, Florida, and it's notable in that it's the first presidential debate with a Tea Party group as a co-sponsor. CNN is the media partner for the event. When the candidates squared off last week, there was some lively sparring over Social Security and health care. There will likely be more of that tonight.

And joining us to talk about all of this is NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea, who is in Tampa. Hello, Don.

DON GONYEA: Hi there.

NORRIS: Tell us more about the Tea Party sponsorship and how that may make this debate a bit different from the others that we've already seen and heard in this election cycle.

GONYEA: The main Tea Party sponsor is the Tea Party Express. That's one of the big national groups. They're based in California, but it's a big national group. But there are more than 150 other Tea Party groups across the country that have joined in and will be participating. It's a way for the Tea Party to say: Hey folks, we are here to stay. We are going to have a big impact in this election cycle, just like they did in 2010.

So look for questions tonight, both from the audience, also from remote sites in Ohio, in Virginia, and in Arizona. They'll put people up on the big screen. The CNN moderator will also be asking questions. But we'll get a lot of questions about the size and the role of government, more than we have at the other debates.

And that segues obviously right into discussion of health care. Tea Party activists think the law President Obama signed is unconstitutional. So, it should be interesting, it should be lively.

NORRIS: The questions will come in from all over the place. But, Don, you're in Florida state with so many retirees. Can we assume because of that the candidates will really focus on Social Security?

GONYEA: Absolutely. Look for it to be a theme of many of the questions. And let me remind people that Texas Governor Rick Perry - the frontrunner in this race, according to all the recent polls - called Social Security a Ponzi scheme in his book. And he called it that again last week at the debate out in California. He has not backed off from that.

Mitt Romney sees that as an opening. He's stressing that they need to fix the system. That it needs to be reformed, certainly. That he thinks that will play well with voters here. But two, Florida is important because the state is looking to move up in the calendar next year, to be one of the very early, early states. And, of course, it's a big swing state, we all know that. So it's an important piece of real estate that people are debating on tonight.

NORRIS: So you note that Rick Perry has become the frontrunner in many of the polls. That means he walks into that debate with a sharp suit and a target on his back. Everyone will be gunning for him in this debate. What does he need to accomplish tonight?

GONYEA: Remember, he's still a new candidate. He only got in, you know, less than a month ago and he's not really tested. He's only been in one debate. And again, he did well - most analysts said in that debate. But he did use that very blunt language about Social Security, so we'll have to see if he walks back a bit from that. He also seemed to fade a little bit at the end of that last debate. So, we'll see if he's, you know, rehearsed and prepped for this one a little better.

Mitt Romney, of course, will be going after him. And Michele Bachmann will be going after him, because Rick Perry is really the one who has pushed her way down in the polls since her win in that straw poll last month.

NORRIS: Let me just ask you quickly about Michele Bachmann, since she has long been a Tea Party favorite. Does this debate, sponsored in part by the Tea Party, give her a chance at a new life, a bit of resurrection?

GONYEA: Well, it's certainly an opportunity for her. This will be a friendly crowd. But this crowd will also like Ron Paul. They'll also like Rick Perry. But Michele Bachmann need only look at the case of Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and the former candidate. He faded fast and he is gone as a candidate because he ran out of money. She could face the same if she doesn't turn things around quickly.

NORRIS: That's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. He's in Florida for the GOP debate. Thanks so much, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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NORRIS: This is NPR News.

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