Perry and Romney won the Tea Party Debate

The Tea Party Express rolled into Tampa last night for a televised debate on CNN, with jobs and economic reform as the prevailing themes. Of the eight candidates who attended, two distinguished themselves as front-runners: Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The pair stood out as the two strongest and most confident candidates.

So far, the public seems to agree. A CNN/ORC International Poll released Monday shows 32 percent of Republicans surveyed favoring Perry, and 21 percent favoring Romney, not including GOP favorite Sarah Palin. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the wide-eyed conservative firebrand, only managed to earn 7 percent of the vote in the poll. The two governors also hold a strong lead over Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and other candidates. Despite a lively debate, none were able to dominate the floor like Perry or Romney.

During the debate, Perry defended his assertion that children of illegal immigrants should be able to pay in-state tuition by saying “it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way.” Perry stands out by taking such an unpopular position, based on the audience’s boos.

Meanwhile, Romney contrasted himself with the other tea partiers by being in favor of Social Security – calling it “an essential program” that still needs reform to be more sustainable. Perry responded by quoting Romney’s book, saying “if people did it in the private sector, it would be called criminal.”

Before Romney could defend himself, Perry received a round of applause. Romney showed clear discomfort, but recovered and followed up by saying, “Gov. Perry, you got to quote me correctly. You said, ‘It’s criminal.’ What I said was Congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and that is, and it’s wrong.” Romney received applause as well.

Santorum and Bachmann tried to get as many points as they could attacking Perry’s earlier mandate for sixth-grade girls to get a human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, according to the Washington Post, and Perry apologized for his decision, calling it a mistake. A candidate actually admitting he was wrong and trying to make amends is a rare act on any debate floor.

Romney was able to hold his own in a crowd farther right than he is used to, and Perry managed to emerge from the barrage of attacks unscathed. They could not only accept criticism but also offer some policy ideas unique to the tea party, or even Republican, train of thought. The heavy focus of criticism on these two candidates also indicated that they were the biggest threat to the other candidates.

Even newspapers the next day big and small focused on these two candidates. Even at this early stage, it is clear these two are the candidates that the tea party will rely on to defeat President Barack Obama.