In a case of odd political bedfellows, CNN and the Tea Party Express, plus a hundred local Tea Party groups nationwide, are jointly hosting a Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., on Monday night. The "first-ever Tea Party debate" will be the second chance for frontrunners Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to face off, and host Wolf Blitzer promises that "when the candidates dodge the questions, I will follow up and press." (The candidates will also take questions from members of Tea Party groups.) What can we expect from the Tea Party's big step into the GOP mainstream? Here, five predictions:
1. Rick Perry will get smacked over Social Security
The showdown over Perry's Social Security–as–Ponzi scheme analogy "was the dominant takeaway from last Wednesday's debate," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Unsurprisingly, Romney and Michele Bachmann have signaled they'll hit Perry "big time over his stance" again on Monday night. "Perry faces a strategic decision in Tampa," says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. He can double down (again), or "soften his previous comments." It's not an easy choice — Tea Partiers hate government spending, but also "tend to be protective of such middle-class entitlements as Social Security and Medicare."
2. Michele Bachmann will fight to become relevant again
"The candidate with the most at stake" Monday isn't Perry, says The Daily Beast's Kurtz, but Bachmann — "the Tea Party queen herself." To get back in the race, she needs to "capitalize on the sympathetic audience." After her "forgettable debate performance" last week, this is her last shot, says Jeremy Wallace in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. If she shows she can "outmaneuver Perry to secure Tea Party support, she becomes a serious contender." If not, she conclusively fades from "top tier contender to also-ran."
3. President Obama's jobs plan will be a piñata
Since the last debate, Obama has unveiled his jobs plan, and now "the candidates will be able to add their two-cents," says Andrew Zarowny in Right Pundits. Don't expect them to have many nice things to say. Indeed, no matter who comes out on top in the debate, "there will be one clear loser: Obama," says Marc Caputo at The Miami Herald. The Tea Party Express wants to keep the debate focused on fiscal and economic issues, and Florida's high unemployment rate gives the various "Obama bashing–based campaigns" an easy storyline.
4. Jon Huntsman will target the non–Tea Party vote
Huntsman got high marks from centrist Republicans and independents for his performance in the last debate, and "in moderate [former GOP Gov.] Charlie Crist's Florida, Huntsman would be a contender," says the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Wallace. Unfortunately for Huntsman, the "Tea Party-dominated Republican Party" hasn't been receptive to his message. But with his rivals veering right, Huntsman sees an opening. Even at this Tea Party debate, "expect Huntsman to embrace the anti-Tea Party crowd."
5. The debate will kick off the decisive battle for Florida
Monday's debate isn't just a showcase for the Tea Party mindset — it's also the start of "Republican-palooza month in Florida," says Caputo at The Miami Herald. Many candidates will be stumping (and debating again) in the Sunshine State until a Sept. 24 straw poll. This introduction to Florida voters is crucial, says the AP's Charles Babington. If Perry and Romney split the first four primary contests — Iowa and South Carolina for Perry, New Hampshire and Nevada for Romney — Florida, which will likely go fifth, would "prove the virtual tie-breaker, a prize so big in a state so central to presidential elections that the loser might struggle to stay afloat."