The brightly lit stage at the Florida State Fairgrounds held the nation’s attention Monday night as Tampa played host to the CNN/Tea Party Express Debate.
CNN and Tea Party groups from every state teamed up to present a first-of-its-kind debate from the city that will host the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Eight Republican presidential candidates took questions from moderator and lead CNN political anchor Wolf Blitzer during the two-hour event. The candidates were:
- Rep. Michele Bachmann
- Businessman Herman Cain
- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
- Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman
- Texas Rep. Ron Paul
- Texas Gov. Rick Perry
- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum
The debate’s high points — or low points depending on your take — included cheers from audience members to let a terminally ill patient die rather than ask the government foot the bill for his care and an all out attack by Bachman and Santorum on Texas Gov. Perry’s executive order to give 6th grade girls in his state the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.
Prior to the start of the debate, dozens of Democratic protestors from Tampa Bay waved signs and shouted from bullhorns at those entering the debate hall.
Former Tampa City Council Chairman Tom Scott, who represented portions of Central and East Tampa, stood among the protestors.
“I think the greatest thing I see here is the people exercising their rights,” Scott said of the protestors. “It’s democracy in action. This is especially critical in today’s time, given we are in a huge recession.”
He defended President Barack Obama from criticisms from those on the right.
“It’s apparent that the Republicans are attacking everything the President is bringing forward, but they haven’t put forth anything that would create jobs,” he said.
The protestors began marching down U.S. 301 as the debate got underway.
Other than CNN crews, members of the media were not permitted into the debate hall to speak with delegates, but they were granted access to candidates for photo opportunities before and after the debate.
Florida Rep. James Grant, who represents the state’s 47th district, attended the debate and live tweeted his take on the candidates.
“I thought it was an enlightening night,” Grant said afterward. “It had its diplomatic moments, and it had its good humor moments. Huntsman was throwing grenade after grenade.”
Grant said Gingrich and Santorum offered the most substantive and on point answers.
“Newt did a masterful job. … And I didn’t see Newt or Santorum being told by other candidates that they were wrong about anything or being asked to clarify anything they had said.”
While frontrunners Romney and Perry seemed to be the focus at the start, each of the candidates gave strong answers and spoke out on issues they were passionate about, Grant said.
“We’re starting to see [the candidates] be more comfortable with what they’re doing,” Grant said.
Having the CNN/Tea Party debate held in Tampa was a “huge” boon for the region, he said.
“We’re definitely a ‘purple’ state,” Grant said. “The I-75 corridor is where red meets blue, and Florida has a significant Tea Party presence. Any of these candidates would be very hard pressed to win a nomination or the White House without winning Florida.”
The next CNN-hosted Republican debate is Oct. 18 in Las Vegas.