Perry, Obama jobs plan likely targets at Tea Party-hosted debate

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and President Obama are likely to be the leading targets on Monday when contenders for the Republican presidential nomination head back to the podium for the second in a busy September series of debates.

Monday’s debate, co-hosted by CNN and Tea Party Express, comes days after Obama announced a jobs plan that Tea Party groups have already derided and less than a week after Perry solidified his status as the front-runner in his first debate of the campaign.

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For former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), it will be a chance to paint Perry as unelectable in a general election. For the remaining participating candidates, it may be their final opportunity to grab enough attention to show they are still relevant in a race where support is quickly congealing behind Perry and Romney.

The two governors sparred early and often in last week’s debate, with each targeting the other’s job-creation record and stances on social welfare programs.

Romney, who led the polls early in the campaign, has increasingly taken a backseat to Perry since the Texas governor launched his campaign in August. A Washington Post-ABC News poll from earlier this month found Perry six points ahead of Romney, with the other candidates trailing far behind.

Candidates were taken a bit off guard in the last debate when Perry doubled down on an earlier claim that Social Security is an elaborate scam.

“It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there,” Perry said during the event sponsored by NBC News and Politico.

But those candidates – especially the more moderate Romney and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) – are expected to have witty barbs and nuanced attacks ready to attack Perry’s no-apologies shunning of a government program that still enjoys high levels of support, even among those who otherwise advocate for shrinking government.

Romney and others who will argue that Social Security needs to be saved – not abolished – will have the advantage of the debate’s location: Florida, a key battleground state and home to a massive and vocal swath of senior voters who depend on those benefits.

Tampa, Fla., will also house the party’s nominating convention in 2012, and later in September, Florida will hold the P5 straw poll. Perry confirmed Friday he will join Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in participating in the poll, while Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) aren’t planning to show.

Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite who won the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, the same day Perry announced his run, had been expected in the last debate to try to take back the momentum she had ceded to Perry, but she remained largely on the sidelines. If she is unable to edge her way into the fire of Monday’s debate, it will ramp up speculation that she’s no longer a viable candidate.

Yet the Tea Party atmosphere will be friendlier ground for Bachmann, who has dutifully courted the movement for years and founded the Tea Party Caucus in Congress. Ideologically similar to Perry on both fiscal and social issues, Bachmann will have the task of proving she’s more capable of carrying the hard-line torch than Perry, whose long record as a governor and prior membership in the Democratic Party provides fodder for those seeking to challenge his purism.

“People in the Tea Party movement are looking at Rick Perry, Bachmann, Ron Paul and Herman Cain, and that’s about it,” said Steve Stevlic, who heads Tea Party Patriots Chicago, one of the groups Tea Party Express has enlisted to co-sponsor the debate. “People are giving a good hard look to Perry, but they’re interested in seeing how he will actually perform on a regular basis now.”

All of the candidates will likely mince no words attacking Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan, which includes both new spending and tax cuts. In the hours after Obama’s speech to Congress, most of the candidates denounced his plan, harping on the theme that Republicans will inevitably carry through the general election: that Obama has proven he can’t handle the economy and shouldn’t be allowed to do any more damage.

That will prove a challenge for Huntsman, whose tone is the opposite of that embraced by the Tea Party, and whose campaign is placing its bet on voters choosing him over more conservative candidates who energize the base but would be tougher sells in the general election.

“At some point, these candidates are going to have to come back to the center and the Tea Party is certainly not going to help them come back to the center,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the Center for Politics at University of Virginia.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer will moderate the two-hour debate, which will include live questions from Tea Party members at simultaneous events across the country. It begins at 8 p.m.

A third debate, to be hosted by Fox News and Google, will take place Thursday, Sept. 22nd, in Orlando, Fla.

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