by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
September 15, 2011
FOR OBAMA AND DEMOCRATS, TIME'S RUNNING OUT
TAMPA, Fla., Sept. 12, 2011 -- Trying to lift a sagging blimp of poll numbers, seven trailing candidates for the GOP presidential nomination huffed and puffed as Texas Gov. Rick Perry's fortunes rose far above theirs in the latest numbers on the race. A pre-debate poll showed him far ahead of Mitt Romney and even further ahead of the rest of the pack.
Monday night the candidates came to Florida, always a critical "battleground" state in presidential elections, where Perry declined to be a dunk-tank target and instead emerged as a candidate who may appeal to a broader electorate than the severely conservative wing of the party that is hoping to defeat incumbent President Barack Obama in 2012.
In a nationally televised debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in sizzling, shimmering Tampa, and on the heels of a CNN/ORC poll showing he has a huge lead among voters, Perry started out as a ready target who had criticized Social Security, the sacred cow of American politics. He nonetheless managed to elude the missiles lobbed at him on several issues, including immigration and state's rights.
Outside the debate, protestors of every stripe held signs and chanted and cheered and shouted and sang as paying Tea Party customers arrived for a dinner and the debate that followed.
At the media gate, though, American Reporter editor Joe Shea and other reporters were turned away by a CNN official in a welter of confusion over credentials. Shea has covered several of the presidential debates since the year 2000 in Los Angeles, in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
At the media gate, which was equipped with a metal detector, two men in jeans and t-shirts announced to media coordinator Jennifer Scroggins that they were carrying guns. They said they had been directed to the media gate when turned away at the other gates. One said, "We're carrying guns right now," but no alarm had sounded and both were already beyond the gate and the detector. Neither had passes or showed a badge.
Florida has adopted very strict gun-carry rules that prohibit local ordinances from being enforced against any licensed person bearing concealed weapons in most public places like a fairgrounds. Scroggins turned away and ran back into the media center before the issue was resolved, so it was unclear whether they were admitted. Shea, with his notebook and camera, was not.
Meanwhile, CNN itself came under scrutiny Tuesday morning in a New York Times article that questioned the pairing of the network with the Tea Party Express, some of whose members have adopted extreme positiona on a wide variety of topics. The network was probably unhappy when some activists in the audience, for instance, cheered the idea of letting a young man die for lack of health insurance if he required intensive care.
"... [T]he CNN debate on Monday was the first event hosted jointly by a major news organization and a Tea Party group. And their partnership left some questioning whether the network had gone too far in reaching for centrist credibility," the Times story said.
As Romney homed in, Perry deftly deflected criticism of his record as a long-running Texas governor, saying he was wrong to sign an executive order requiring 12-year-old girls to get a vaccine to deal with a sexually-transmitted disease, human papilloma virus (HPV) - an issue that gained national traction at the last debate, which aired last week on MSNBC.
"If I had it to do over again," Perry said with almost religious fervor, answering moderator Wolf Blitzer's question, "I would have done it differently. But what was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people's lives.
"Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die. At the end of the day, this was about trying to stop a cancer. At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life."
In doing so, Perry showed that when he takes a stand he does not back away, He was booed for defending a controversial decision to provide in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, a stand that will clearly appeal to the Hispanic voters in this country, but stuck with it when Blitzer raised the issue as the debate topic turned to immigration.
"What we did in Texas was clearly a state's rights issue," Perry shot back. "We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of your last name is, that we believe in you."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman later called Perry's objection to a border fence "pretty much a treasonous comment," but he was smiling as he said it.
Perry kept smiling but ducked his head with a wry grin, as though saying, "here we go again" as the comment recalled his own criticism of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke's possible decisions as "almost treasonous." Huntsman apparently meant the charge in that pointed but ironic vein.
Congresswomen Michele Bachmann, the darling of the Tea Party movement in the Iowa Straw Poll last month, is now trailing in dismal fourth place in a CNN poll released shortly before the debate. She drew a bead on Perry, accusing him of taking campaign contributions from "a big drug company that made millions of dollars" in return for the mandating the HPV vaccine.
"Is it about life," she asked, "or was it about the ... potentially billions of dollars for a drug company?"
"The company was Merck," Perry responded, "and it was a $5,000 contribution. And if your saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
"Well," Bachmann retorted, "I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn't have a choice. That's what I'm offended for," she said, a line that won a rousing round of applause.
She also blasted Perry on his tuition stand, agreeing with Blitzer that his was "basically the DREAM Act that President Obama wants as well."
"The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws," Bachmann said. More cheers followed that. All of Perry's comments after the fitrst one drew an awful silence.
Bachmann wasn't alone taking jabs at Perry. A hopeful Mitt Romney, clearly in a fight to win a bigger segment of the of conservative Tea Partiers who are lukewarm to his moderate message, started off the debate by accusing Perry of scaring the American public with his recent comments that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme."
Answering the first debate question, about Social Security, from a Tea Party activist at a "watch Party in Jacksonville, Fla., Romney said he believed "the term 'Ponzi scheme' is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people."
Turning to Perry, he said, "Governor, the term 'Ponzi scheme' is what scared seniors, number one," Romney said. "And number two, suggesting that Social Security [Perry did in his book, Fed Up) is unconstitutional, is likewise frightening. "Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program or do you want to retreat from that?" he asked.
"I think we ought to have a conversation," Perry answered.
"We're having that right now, Governor," Romney quippd. "We're running for president." The audience laughed at one of the few jibes at Perry that realy took.
Defending his comments in an opinion piece in Monday's USA Today, where he seemed to soften his tone, Perry saidd that he demonstrated "the courage to stand up and say, here is how we're going to reform it.
"We're going to fix it so that our young Americans that are going out into the workforce today will know without a doubt that there were some people who came along that didn't lie to them."
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shot a few zingers of his own when he was got his turn.
"I'm not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every day," he said with the dry, high-brow humor that sprinkles his words.
Gingrich largely refrained from assaulting the other candidates andlet his record in Congress speak for itself about balancing the budget and reducing debt. Both issues are now overshadowed by concern about jobs and the future of health care.
"I helped balance the budget for four straight years," he said. "I would start to balance the budget by [stopping] paying the crooks, not by cheating honest Americans."
He challenged the new Congressional Super Committee tasked by President Obama to come up with budget and deficit solutions to "learn how to be smart, rather than cheap, and actually modernize the federal government."
Gingrich, however, like other second- and third-tier candidates, struggled not to become roadkill on the dangerous highway to nomination.
The former President and CEO of Godfather's Pizza, Herman Cain, the only non-politician on the dais, offered thoughtful solutions to many of the questions posed, unlike most of the other participants who relied on well-worn phrases from their campaign.
On Social Security, he recommended optional personal retirement accounts modeled after similar programs in Galveston County, Texas and Chile. His economic turnaround plan is already laid out, based on a 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.
"We need a bold solution in order to get this economy growing at the maximum rate," he offered. "Get the government out of the way. American entrepreneurship, American business, they will create jobs if we provide some certainty.
"I've been told by some people, ‘Well, you can't get that done.' I say ‘Why?'
"‘Because you don't know how Washington works.'
"Yes, I do," he said. "It doesn't."
Cain's reasoned approach stood in sharp contrast to a few of the other more simplistic solutions heard Monday.
"It's easy to turn around this economy," Bachmann said, blaming President Obama for spending "a trillion dollars you don't pay for. It really isn't that tough if you try. You just have to have the backbone to do it."
Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman steered his state to prosperity and jobs before becoming U.S. Ambassador to China, "What we're seeing playing out in America is a human tragedy," he said. "We have millions and millions who are unemployed, [and] millions beyond who are so dispirited they've completely given up."
Like Perry, he asserted that his record would translate easily to the national stage. He also joined all the other candidates in calling for an end to "Obamacare."
The audience's response to one of Blitzer's questions might have caused the rest of the country to gasp in horror.
At one point, Blitzer asked Congressman Ron Paul of Texas a hypothetical question about healthy young man who decided not to "spend $200 or $300 a month" for health insurance.
"What happens if he goes into a coma?" The anchorman asked. "Who pays for that?"
Paul, long a proponent of strict constitutionalism and personal freedom, reasoned "that's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks; he should assume responsibility for himself." That drew heart cheers and applause.
"But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die,"
"Yes! Yeah!" a few men in the audience shouted. Blitzer pressed on, leading some in the audience to nod their heads yes.
Paul, a doctor as well as a perennial Presidential candidate, answered that America's traditional response would be that "churches" would take care of the bills. But the exchange could not have played out well in the rest of the country, for whom the Tea Party are sometimes seen as extremists.
Rick Santorum, former U. S. Senator from Pennsylvania, relied heavily on his election successes to bolster his appeal, noting that he spoke of the need for Social Security reform in 1994 in a state that had a Democratic voter registration edge of more than a million..
"I've got a track record of courage and a track record of concrete proposals on how to fix this," Santorum said.
"Some people say that Barack Obama's economy is a disaster. My feeling is would have to make a dramatic improvement just to be a disaster."
He was the only candidate to mention the major vacuum in the American economy - jobs in manufacturing - and offer a plan to fill it. It went rather far as such proposals go..
"My plan says if you manufacture in America, you aren't going to pay any taxes," he said. "We want you to have "Made in America" stamped on your product."
Despite any criticism of the newtwork, CNN won big numbers for the show, easily outpacing network cable competition.
"According to Nielsen Fast National data (8-10pm), CNN's Tea Party Republican debate moderated by Wolf Blitzer delivered 3.6 million total viewers and 1.1 million among adults 25-54 last night, Monday, September 12," the network said on its Press Room blog.
"CNN ranked first in both total viewers and among the P25-54, topping second place FNC by +88% in total viewers (3.6m vs. 1.9m) and by +204% in the key demo (1.1m vs. 370k).
"CNN also out-rated third place MSNBC by +455% among total viewers (3.6m vs. 643k) and by +599% among 25-54 (1.1m vs. 161k)," the company said.
AR Correspondent Joe Shea contributed to this story.