Reporting from Washington — CNN plans to host a Republican presidential primary debate next year with the Tea Party Express, a political action committee that featured former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at its events and is now raising money for a new advertising campaign against President Obama.
Cable News Network announced Friday that it has teamed up with the Sacramento-based organization to co-host a debate during the first week of September in Tampa, Fla., the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention. The event will focus on the economy and the size and scope of government.
CNN political director Sam Feist compared the joint debate to past forums the network has co-hosted with organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus and Rock the Vote.
"You find groups [that are] part of the coalition that make up a party and partner with them," Feist said. "The 'tea party' is clearly a significant part of the Republican coalition."
The presidential primary forum will serve as a high-profile platform for the Tea Party Express, which spent $7.7 million in this year's midterm election trying to elect conservative candidates such as senatorial contenders Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The group also sponsored a series of bus tours and rallies around the country, some of which featured Palin as a keynote speaker.
"We will be full partners with CNN, jointly making decisions with them about the debate, and we will ensure that this debate reflects tea party principles, and we appreciate the opportunity to have those values represented over the airwaves of CNN," the organization said in an e-mail to supporters. "Folks, we continue to expand our reach, and we couldn't be more thrilled."
The Tea Party Express is also working to maintain a presence on the air. Its official political action committee, called Our Country Deserves Better, sent out an e-mail fundraising appeal Thursday soliciting donations for "a Christmas Gift for America" — a national television campaign that will take Obama to task "for his failures in office and his continuing attempts to impose a quasi-socialist agenda on the United States."
Though its financial muscle has helped bolster the visibility of the smaller-government movement, the PAC has also drawn the ire of some tea party activists who charge that it was set up by Republican consultants for financial gain. The group's chief strategist is Sal Russo, a veteran conservative operative who has worked in California politics for four decades. He maintains that his expertise has helped give the movement political weight.
The Tea Party Express also was at the center of a furor this summer when it was expelled from the National Tea Party Federation after racially inflammatory statements by its national spokesman, radio host Mark Williams. Williams resigned from the PAC in July.
Feist said that the network joined forces with Tea Party Express to help organize the debate after watching the role it played in the midterm vote. He said CNN was inviting other tea party groups, national and local, to be part of the event.
"Any way you look at it, the Tea Party Express had a concerted impact on the 2010 campaign," he said. "The Tea Party Express had thousands of people attending their rallies. They have thousands of small donors. They are a force in the movement."
The CNN-Tea Party Express debate is one of a slew of GOP primary forums announced this month as television networks try to stake a claim on key events in the 2012 race. There are now eight on the calendar, though no Republican has jumped in yet as an official presidential candidate.