GOP debate: three things we might see at tea party event tonight

The Republican candidates face off in Florida tonight, and the Tea Party Express organizers vow that the debate will focus only on tea party 'core principles.' Will Perry and Paul clash?

Republican presidential candidates on Monday night will debate for the second time in less than a week. This time the multi-hopeful wrangle will take place in Tampa, Florida. It’s a joint effort of CNN and the Tea Party Express.

Given that many of the questions will come from the tea party activists in the audience, this debate likely will have a different tone than the previous one at the Reagan Library.

“The Tea Party Debate will focus only on the core principles and values of the tea party movement: limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility,” says the Tea Party Express web site.

Given this framework, what might viewers see?

First, the obvious – candidates may compete to see who dislikes President Obama’s jobs plan the most. As potential opponents of Mr. Obama, they all have an incentive to deny the president credit for any jobs measures Congress now may pass. Plus, they are likely to gang up in disapproval of the taxes Obama is proposing to help pay for the $447 billion measure. For instance, the White House wants to raise $400 billion over ten years by limiting deductions for individuals making $200,000, and couples making over $250,000.

Second, the even-more obvious – everybody’s going to want to see how Texas Gov. Rick Perry handles the issue of Social Security. (He called it a “monstrous lie” last week, and reiterated his belief that it’s a “Ponzi scheme”, if you remember.)

Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have criticized Governor Perry’s language as inflammatory and insensitive. Either or both of them could take him on directly tonight, which could be interesting in front of a tea party crowd.

Perry himself said Monday that he’s the truth-teller here. “The first step to fixing a problem is honestly admitting there is a problem,” he wrote in an op-ed published in USA Today.

The op-ed continues by saying that benefits for those now on Social Security must be protected, but that changes will be necessary to maintain projected benefits after 2036.

As Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan points out, the op-ed is far from inflammatory. It’s the sort of chin-pulling one could find in a Brookings seminar on the subject.

“Perry says he is doubling down on this matter.... Except he isn’t,” writes Mr. Sullivan.

So look to see if the phrases “Ponzi scheme” or “monstrous lie” actually pass Perry’s lips tonight. Tea partyers might approve, but the debate is in Florida, a state with a high percentage of Social Security recipients.

Third, how is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas going to play in front of the tea party audience? Will they treat him as a founding father of the movement or an eccentric back-bencher? No one in the GOP race has been promoting the idea of a more limited US government longer than Representative Paul. But his idea of “limited” is “very limited.” In the last debate he questioned whether the feds should regulate drug or auto safety. He said it was possible a fence along the US border with Mexico could be used at some point to keep US citizens in, as opposed to illegal immigrants out.

An interesting sub-question here is whether Paul and Perry will go after each other in public. Paul has run TV ads pointing out that Perry was a Democrat until 1989, and that the current Texas governor ran Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign in the state. Perry has responded by releasing a letter Paul wrote in 1987 resigning from the GOP. (He said Reagan had failed to keep government and taxes from growing.)

At the Reagan Library debate, photos showed that Perry approached Paul during a break in the action and appeared to berate the lawmaker. Both minimized the incident afterwards. But even by releasing Paul’s 1987 letter, Perry has violated a tenet of campaigning: Don’t waste time arguing with somebody who’s way behind you in the polls.

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