ORLANDO, FL – Nine Republican presidential candidates will face off Thursday night in Orlando, Florida, in the third GOP debate this month. The debate, hosted by Fox News and Google, coincides with Florida’s “Presidency 5” event that will end with a straw poll on Saturday.
Tensions on the campaign trail have escalated between Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The two front-runners, in fact, have been going at it fiercely in the electronic world over the last 48 hours.
On Thursday morning the Romney campaign blasted out a press release with the headline, “How many times can Rick Perry be wrong on Social Security?”
Perry weighed in Wednesday night in an interview with the Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, saying of Romney, “We don’t need to nominate Obama-lite. We don’t need to nominate someone who is going to blur the lines between President Obama and our nominee.”
Even Florida Governor Rick Scott zeroed in on the Texas governor and the former Massachusetts chief executive in an interview with The Daily Caller on Thursday.
“I think that it appears, right now, that it’s coming down to Romney and Perry,” said Scott. “I hope the things they talk about tonight are the things that are most important to Americans; it’s jobs, it’s fiscal responsibility.”
And on Romney’s struggle to get past Republicans’ criticism of his Massachusetts health care legislation, Scott told TheDC that “as long as people know what a candidate thinks about something, and why they did certain things, that’s all we should expect.”
Perry served as a punching bag for his challengers during the last debate. Those attacks are likely to be ratcheted up Thursday night, especially from Romney and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
The debate stage will be packed at the Orlando Convention Center, however. Perry, Romney, Bachmann, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Godfather’s Pizza businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich will all participate.
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson was also added to the roster – his first debate since May’s South Carolina debate.
Recent polls have added a few unique twists to the political climate surrounding Thursday’s debate. A South Carolina poll released this week by Winthrop University showed Perry with only a slight lead over Romney, 30.5 percent to 27.3 percent. Cain came in a distant third with 7.7 percent.
In New Hampshire, the latest Suffolk University poll had Romney leading with 41 percent. Ron Paul followed with 14 percent. Jon Huntsman came in a surprising third with 10 percent. Perry only polled at 8 percent.
Both polls indicate Perry’s early honeymoon period could be coming to an end.
But Florida is already slated to play a significant role in the Republican primary season, with its large coffers, diverse electorate and early primary date. The 2012 GOP nominating convention will be held in Tampa, and that city has already hosted one debate.
“You need to win Florida,” Gov. Scott told TheDC, pointing out that all three times the Sunshine State held a straw poll, the winners — Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bob Dole — went on to secure the Republican nomination for president.