In a debate that was the first of its kind, eight Republican presidential candidates sparred over politics Monday night at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
The CNN Tea Party Debate, the final stop on the Tea Party Express “Reclaiming America Tour,” allowed audience members and debate moderator Wolf Blitzer to question Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.
The tea party, a grassroots conservative movement that rose to national prominence in 2009, advocates for a decentralized government and balanced budget, while eliminating President Barack Obama’s universal health care plan.
Questions on the economy and job creation were among the most debated.
Blitzer asked Romney if Perry, who said he helped create more than one million statewide jobs, can truly take credit for Texas’ growing economy. Romney suggested that, “If you’re dealt four aces, it doesn’t necessarily make you a great poker player.”
Cain, former president and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, said his working class roots will help him better understand the plight of the common worker, and proposed creating a 9 percent flat tax for all businesses, personal incomes and national sales.
“This economy is on life support,” he said. “We need a bold solution. Some people say, ‘You don’t know how Washington works.’ Yes, I do – it doesn’t.”
Paul, a Texas congressman, joked he was afraid to comment on the state of the Texas economy, because as a Texas resident, Perry would increase his taxes.
“Our taxes, spending and debt have gone up,” he said. “I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something.”
Santorum said he hopes to increase manufacturing jobs available to workers.
“(President) Barack Obama’s economy would have to make a drastic improvement to be a disaster,” he said. “What the American people want is the opportunity to rise in America.”
Huntsman said the current state of the economy is a “human tragedy.”
“First and foremost, I want to reform this tax code that the Wall Street Journal has come out and endorsed … (by) cleaning out corporate welfare … leaving us a whole lot more competitive in the 21st century,” he said. “We cannot go forward with Obamacare.”
Bachmann agreed that Obamacare should be eliminated because no state has the right to force a citizen to buy a service.
“It’s unconstitutional whether it’s the state government or whether it’s the federal government,” she said. “The only way to eradicate Obamacare is to pull it out by the root and branch to fully repeal it. It’s the only way we’re going to get rid of it.”
Gingrich said he is willing to work with the Democratic Party to stimulate the economy.
“I just want to point out the American people create jobs, not the government,” he said.
Perry said the initial stimulus funds injected into the economy under Obama’s administration created no jobs.
“This president does not understand how to free up small businessmen and women … to do what they know how to do which is to risk their capital,” he said.
Perry came under fire when Santorum dismissed his platform of allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, similar to a DREAM Act initiative, as an attempt to pander to Latino voters.
Perry defended his stance on the issue, despite boos from the audience.
“The bottom line is it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is,” he said. “That is the American way.”
Santorum further emphasized that English should be the national language and that America was “a melting pot, not a salad bowl.”
USF political science professor Susan MacManus, who was an analyst for the debate, said the economic discussions would attract young voters.
“Younger people are really engaged in the economy,” she said. “Especially college students, who are the ones who vote. I see it in our USF students. Younger voters want to know about their economic future. That question is one that younger voters are going to expect better answers from both the president and these GOP contenders.”
She said it was too early to tell the impact of the tea party movement on the GOP race.
“The issues can change in a heartbeat,” she said. “If the economy improves drastically, it comes back to a very even playing field quickly. We don’t know what can happen.”
According to a CNN/ORC International poll released Monday morning, Perry led with 32 percent of voters indicating he was their first choice candidate. Following Perry was Romney with 21 percent, Paul with 13 percent and Bachmann with 7 percent. Perry and Romney have topped the polls since mid-July, with Perry recently taking the lead in late August. The total number of Americans polled were 1,038.
Prior to the debate, Corey Uhl, an organizer for USF’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, protested the tea party movement outside the debate hall with seven other members. Uhl, a senior majoring in history, said Florida students have been impacted by the tea party movement through the actions of Gov. Rick Scott, who was elected with support from the party, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“Student loan debt recently surpassed credit card debt,” Uhl said. “The tea party is raising tuition and cutting funding for the (University) budget, which I don’t think they should be. Especially with the present financial situation, (the tea party’s policies) are directly affecting students.”
Uhl stood with Savanah Goodland, a senior majoring in humanities and American studies, and about 80 other protesters, holding a sign that stated: “They say CUT back. We say FIGHT back against tuition hikes.”
Goodland said she hopes to see more student voices reflected in politics.
“Students are so misrepresented,” she said. “We don’t often get heard because we don’t get out to the polls enough. We really want to try and get that back up. (The tea party) probably ignores us the most, so if anything this is the best place for us to try. At least someone may see us.”
Chairwoman of the Tea Party Express Amy Kramer said in an interview with The Oracle that tea party issues are important to young voters, who are typically a demographic considered liberal.
“I don’t think it’s right for us to burden our children with our debt,” she said. “Washington continues to spend, so we need to step up and take control. Our children shouldn’t be in debt the minute they’re born.”
Kramer said she hopes the debate appealed to younger voters.
“I think (young voters) should be concerned because their parents are being laid off,” she said. “Their parents can’t pay for them to go to school and buy them cars and do the things they’re used to doing. It’s going to continue to affect their future.”
Uhl left as soon as the debate started and said he planned to do homework rather than watch it.
“It’s probably going to be the same rhetoric,” he said. “I’ll probably do what I need to do afterwards.”