By Josh Lederman - 09/22/11 09:15 AM EDT
Rick Perry’s and Mitt Romney’s escalating feud over Social Security has set the stage for Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate in Florida, whose unique demographics and influential political events have put it front and center in the presidential race.
The Fox News/Google debate will include all eight candidates who have shared the stage at previous debates — plus former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Perry is beating Romney 29-20 in Florida, according to a Florida Times-Union/Insider Advantage poll last week — the day after another GOP debate in Florida where Perry bore the brunt of attacks from the wide field of candidates. That poll showed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in third place with 9 percent, trailed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) with 8 percent and businessman Herman Cain with 6 percent.
Pre-empting the debate, Romney released six questions Wednesday he says Perry must answer about Social Security. Perry’s views on Social Security have been the No. 1 target for his GOP opponents since he called it a Ponzi scheme in a previous debate.
“This election is about choices and voters — and voters will have the opportunity to choose between Mitt Romney, who wants to fix and strengthen Social Security for the next generation, and Rick Perry, who wants to dismantle it,” said Romney’s communications director, Gail Gitcho.
Perry’s campaign fought back hours later, claiming Romney had flip-flopped on Social Security and portraying him as too far to the left for the GOP base.
“Mr. Romney has been running for president full time for nearly five years, and has failed to issue a specific plan on Social Security,” said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. “Rick Perry and other conservatives are courageous enough to be honest about federal spending and entitlements, whether Mr. Romney and the liberals like it or not.”
But for Thursday’s debate in Orlando, aides trading barbs will give way to the real deal: Perry and Romney going head to head to convince Florida’s large contingent of senior citizens that they’re the best candidate to be trusted with reforming the nation’s entitlement system.
Once considered the third rail of politics that candidates avoided talking about at all costs, Social Security has been this race’s topic du jour — even though voters say their top concerns are unemployment and the economy as a whole.
“It’s a lot easier to demagogue on an issue like Social Security than for someone running for president to explain how they’re going to create jobs. That’s not something you can typically do with a one-liner,” said Chris Ingram, a Florida political analyst and Republican strategist. He said Social Security gets more bang for the buck because “all of a sudden you’re the sound bite — you’re the debate activity.”
The debate also comes the day before the candidates will address a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and two days before Florida’s Presidency 5 Straw Poll, which has a long record of predicting the GOP nominee. But unlike the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, which Bachmann won in August, P5 participants are carefully screened by the state GOP, making grassroots mobilization less of a factor.
Romney and Bachmann have both declined to actively campaign for the poll, leaving Perry as the leading contender. But if Perry wins by a narrow margin, it could indicate a lack of enthusiasm for the Texas governor.
“It’s really a question of how much in second place is Romney,” Ingram said.
Here are three other things to watch for in Thursday’s debate:
Does Johnson’s presence change the dynamic?
The pre-debate smiles and handshaking have become second nature to the other eight candidates, who have all debated each other before. But Thursday’s debate will be the second to include Johnson, who was added to the list just days before the debate because recent national polls showed him picking up at least 1 percent of the vote.
Johnson participated in the first GOP debate of the cycle, which took place in May in South Carolina. It was also sponsored by Fox News, but Romney, Perry and Bachmann did not participate in that event. Romney declined and Perry and Bachmann were not in the race yet.
Those closely following the presidential race will be eager to see how Johnson performs, and he might push the theme that he is the underdog in the race. But if he gets little airtime or fails to grab attention, it will affirm the thought that his candidacy lacks viability.
Can Bachmann move on from the HPV debate?
In the last debate, Bachmann scored major points by calling out Perry on donations he received from a pharmaceutical company she said stood to benefit from an executive order Perry signed mandating that teenage girls be vaccinated against HPV. But when she repeated an anecdote after the debate about a mother who claimed her daughter became mentally retarded from the vaccine, she became the subject of widespread derision and has been dealing with the fallout ever since.
This debate will be Bachmann’s opportunity to change the conversation by going back on the offensive. But if other candidates take the opportunity to attack her for ignoring medical science or failing to do her homework, Bachmann could see herself once again relegated to defense.
The Obama factor
Since the last debate, President Obama has given Republicans plenty of fodder with which to attack him, excite their base and send voters the message that the country would be better off in their hands.
Obama vowed to veto any deficit-reduction legislation that cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits without also raising taxes on the wealthy. Republicans have long maintained that hurts job creation and stifles the economy. And on Wednesday, Obama addressed a U.N. General Assembly session that could consider a Palestinian bid for statehood, amid widespread speculation that Obama is losing the Jewish vote because he hasn’t been supportive of Israel.
Attacking Obama affords candidates an opportunity to sound like the nominee months before primaries begin and to give voters a taste of how they would perform in a general election.
The debate will begin at 9 p.m. on Thursday and run for two hours, airing on Fox News Channel and streaming live on YouTube.com.