Following Saturday’s South Carolina primaries,all four remainingRepublican presidentialnominees will take the stage in Theatre I tonight in hopes of securing next week’s Florida primary vote.
The 24th Republican nationaldebate of the season, hostedby “NBC Nightly News” host Brian Williams and the Tampa Bay Times’ political editor Adam Smith, is expected to become a “new game” after the results of the last threeprimaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have yielded different victors.
“The polls are going up and down, up and down dependingon how the candidatesperform in debates, and that’s something that, in this election season, is very different,” said SusanMacManus, a USF political
science professor. “Debates are mattering more. If you look at the exit polls of any one of the states (that have had a primary) so far, like in South Carolina, nearly80 percent said that the debates made a difference in their vote choice.”
Smith said tonight’s debate will also give candidates the chance to reach undecided voters.
“All these debates have been very significant and have been an opportunity for some of the candidates who don’tnecessarily have as much money to spend on TV ads to really get their message out, because they’re getting really good ratings,” he said.
The debate will begin at 9 p.m. in Theatre I, a venue selected after the debate date was moved up toaccommodate the earlier Florida primary to be held Jan. 31. Mitt Romney wasconfirmed to join NewtGingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum at the debate as early as Sunday morning,and rumors of itscancellation swirled until late Friday afternoon.
But the candidates have too much to gain from the “I-4corridor” – the area stretching from Tampa to Daytona Beach – to skip the debate, politicalscience professor J. Edwin Benton said. All candidates, including President Barack Obama, would have to win the South to win the general election.
“More and more, Florida is looked at as being amicrocosm of the nation,” he said. “It has rural areas, it has suburban areas (and) it has highly urbanized areas. It has people from almost everyethnic group, walk of life,
religious affiliation, age (and) anything you can think of. Polls have indicated that the folks living in the I-4 corridor have chosen the right presidentialcandidate. Those peoplesupported George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, (Barack) Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in ’96.”
Tampa Bay in particular, where the Tea Party held a debate in September and where the Republican National Convention will be held in August, is of utmost importanceto the candidates, Smith said. It will account for 25 percentof Florida’s votes in theprimaries.
Smith said Florida voters are likely to follow those in South Carolina, where Newt Gingrich toppled Mitt Romney’s steady lead of more than 16 points.
“I think South Carolina’s results will have a biginfluence on Florida,” Smith said. “Florida tends to follow the momentum that’s already been built up. The most recent polls seen in Florida show Romney way up, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the next polls later this week show a very close race, if not Newt Gingrich ahead. Mitt Romney has lost all his momentum, and (tonight’s debate) is a real opportunity for him to regain something.”
MacManus said she expects some lines of debatequestioning to shift to concerns that affect many Floridians, including immigration,environmental issues related to offshore drilling, politics with Cuba and a more robust discussion on economics.
“What you are seeing now is that Floridians are much more strapped economically than any of the states that have gone before us (with aprimary) by far,” she said. “When you think about the basics of life – put a roof over your head, a job, putting food on the table, gas to get to your job – those are the basics and that’s the condition that we’re in right now as a lot of people are asking, ‘How can you get my life back to normal?'”
While only preselected students will be able to attend the debate, the college-agedemographic is of littleconsequence to the candidates, Smith said.
“I hate to say this, but I don’t think the college-agedemographic is thatsignificant,” he said. “In the Florida primary, people under 30 are probably going to be about 7 percent of the vote, which is not a huge chunk. That’s one reason why Ron Paul, who does very well with college students in particular, has a bit of a challenge in Florida.”
While college students can often energize a campaign,as they did with Obama in 2008, Benton saidcandidates can afford to ignore issues of importance to thedemographic.
“Obviously, in a closeelection, they could make a difference, but you can say that about any age group, any social group,” he said. “If a few more people had voted in the 2000 presidentialelection – remember, theelection was only decided by 535 votes – a few votesshifted here or there could have made a difference.”
The debate, Smith said, has the potential to turn the tides of the election in a state known for its predictive primaries.
“We saw what happened in South Carolina,” he said. “It was two debates thatcompletely turned the tide in South Carolina, when Mitt Romney was up by 16 points. Gingrich had some strong debate performances and he overwhelmingly won the state.”
With the next debatescheduled for Thursday at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Smith said the frequent debates will helpdictate the outcome of the elections.
“There are some Republicans who think in the long term they could be hurting theultimate nominee by all this criticizing and attacking,but the voters seem to be watching and the voters seem to be reacting,” he said.