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If the duel between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney during last week’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in California wasn’t enough to signify that the nation has entered a faster and more furious stage of the race, then the simple fact that yet another debate will be held tonight, five days after the last, should hammer that home.
The candidates have barely had time to campaign (or raise money) in between the two events.
This evening’s contest will be held some 2,500 miles away from the Reagan one—in Tampa. The wrinkle this time is that it will be co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express, an advocacy group affiliated with the small-government movement.
As part of the format, the participants will take questions from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, along with questions from members of the audience and "tea party" groups across the country. While that may not move the combatants off their talking points, it may provide a different flavor to the event.
Here are some story lines to watch during the debate, which will be broadcast live from the Florida State Fairgrounds on CNN.
1. Will Perry try to walk back his remarks on Social Security?
The Texas governor tried to have it both ways during the Reagan debate, on one hand by refusing to ameliorate his widely reprinted comments on Social Security as a “scheme” and a “lie” and on the other by reassuring older Americans their benefits would not be jeopardized in a Perry administration.
But Perry’s potshots at the program resonated—and gave Romney an opening he has tried to exploit ever since. Late Monday, his campaign was still trying to crucify Perry on the issue. Expect Romney, along with Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman Jr. and perhaps others to try to bludgeon Perry with his remarks. The question is whether the tough-talking Texan will try to finesse his criticism this time around, as he did in an op-ed he wrote in Monday’s USA Today, in a state filled with an aging and government-dependent population.
2. Will Romney try to court the tea party vote?
Ever since Perry began his surge in the polls, Romney has been forced to play some catchup ball. Part of that has been an intensified effort to reach out to members of the tea party movement. Asked at the Reagan debate whether he was a member of the tea party, Romney replied, “If the tea party is for keeping government small and spending down, and helping us create jobs, then, hey, I'm for the tea party.”
This debate will likely hand him an even greater opportunity to try to sway skeptical tea party voters. At the same time, he may be pressed more firmly on his differences with the movement’s adherents, including, of course, his views about the healthcare plan he helped enact while governor of Massachusetts, an absolute deal-breaker with the tea party crowd.
3. Can Bachmann get a word in edgewise?
After shining in the first Republican debate in June, the Minnesota congresswoman ended up largely MIA in California. Part of that was the decision of the moderators from NBC News and Politico to focus on the tension between Perry and Romney, part of it was Perry’s tallest-hat-in-the-room style, and part of it was Bachmann’s failure to adjust her game to newly emergent Perryfied dynamic.
Nevertheless, the tea-party-friendly format should allow Bachmann to stand on solid ground and perhaps get some licks in at Perry on Social Security and his 11-year record as Texas governor. The question remains whether it will be enough to revitalize a campaign that is showing some major wear and tear.
4. Can Huntsman (and others) stay relevant?
The former Utah governor received high marks for a focused and assertive performance at the Reagan debate, one that featured a sterling defense of the value of scientific analysis on the issue of global warming. But the relatively moderate Huntsman is playing the equivalent of an away game on the tea party’s turf—and whether he tries to make an appeal to the conservative audience or continue to carve out a space for himself as a centrist, electable alternative will be a compelling subplot.
All of the so-called bottom-tier candidates -- Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum -- are reaching the point where they need to show some movement in the polls or risk falling out of the political conversation entirely. There’s a saying among football coaches: You are what your record says you are. The season is getting later and later.
5. Will the GOP risk alienating moderate voters?
While CNN’s decision to co-brand the debate with a tea party organization raised eyebrows in some circles, it was viewed as a sign that the movement had acquired a patina of legitimacy in the political arena. But polls have consistently shown that the tea party is losing support among Americans as it becomes better known.
Tonight’s debate could help cement the relationship between the Republican Party and the tea party, at least in the eyes of some swing voters. And even as the candidates attempt to curry favor with the movement Monday, will they turn off the moderate voters a nominee will need to ultimately defeat President Obama next year?
But then, since the debate will air at the same time as ESPN's Monday Night Football, it raises the question of how many people will be watching at all. In other words, can tea party patriots beat the New England Patriots?