GOP candidates to face tea party questions in Monday’s debate

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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TAMPA, Fla. — Don’t expect to hear much on abortion or Afghanistan when eight Republican presidential hopefuls take the stage Monday night at what’s being billed as the first major televised tea party debate of the 2012 election.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Sal Russo, the top strategist with the Tea Party Express, said organizers have designed the debate so that social and foreign policy issues only play a small role. His group is a co-host of tonight’s Republican presidential debate with CNN, which begins at 8 p.m. eastern.

Instead, Russo said, candidates will spend their time talking about the issue that matters most to the grassroots activists: “how do we right the country from the economic woes that we face.”

“How do we get control of our spending?” Russo said. “How do we stop the skyrocketing of the national debt? How do we have an economic policy that supports prosperity? How do we deal with entitlements, make them effective and constructive, instead of deeply in debt?” (RELATED: Perry leads in poll, unharmed by Social Security comments)

The issue of entitlements will almost certainly be brought up. The two front-runners, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have been sparring over Social Security since the presidential contenders met last week for a debate at the Reagan Library in California.

Perry stayed strong then on his view of the program, not backing away from his past description of Social Security as being like a “Ponzi scheme.” Romney, who on Monday scored the endorsement of former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, has since used those remarks to accuse Perry of wanting to dismantle the program entirely.

It’s likely other candidates, such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, could also go after Perry on the issue during the debate.

Others debating in Florida include Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

CNN said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin were both offered invitations to participate, though neither accepted.

Russo said the audience at the Florida State Fairgrounds will be made up several hundred local tea party activists. CNN, he said, has also solicited questions for the debate from tea party activists.

While Tea Party Express has been involved in helping CNN with the “framework for the questions,” none of their people will actually ask the questions.

“We’ll leave that up to Wolf Blitzer to do,” Russo said of the appointed moderator.

Russo said his group, a Sacramento-based political action committee that came to prominence by taking bus tours across the country and holding rallies with tea party activists, plans to endorse in the race. However, he said he doesn’t know when that might be.

“We’ve talked about it a little bit,” Russo said of eventually making an endorsement. “That’s one reason we wanted to do the debate is, we wanted to get tea party activists to start focusing on the candidates.”

“We’ve stated all along that the tea party movement is bringing all the energy and excitement into the political process,” he concluded, “so I think that its pretty safe to say the tea party will be a critical factor not only in the nomination but ultimately in the election.”