CNN's Tea Party debate in Tampa: Politics as an unrepentant blood sport
TAMPA, Fla. -- There's not much spin in the spin room tonight.
Usually, moments after a big political debate ends, journalists rush to an area where representatives for the candidates can tell cameras how great their guy (or gal) performed that night. In short, they're working the "spin room."
But in the bowels of the Florida State Fairgrounds moments after the end tonight of CNN's first debate in partnership with the conservative Tea Party Express, there is precious little spinning going on here. Mostly because the star power of the spinners is so low.
Here, you judge clout by the number of cameras gathered and reporters shouting questions, leaving Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal the clear winner -- one of only a few A-listers who made the rounds tonight. A newly-declared supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Jindal insisted he wasn't looking for a Vice Presidential slot and wasn't concerned that his guy had bobbled questions on requiring young girls to get the HPV vaccine and giving illegal immigrants education credits in Texas.
"Rick Perry has got a proven track record in Texas," intoned Jindal, unable to be distracted from his talking points, even for a moment. "Lots of candidates got off good lines. But I'm not worried about who cracked the best jokes. I'm worried about who can beat Barack Obama."
Among the eight GOP candidates who faced off tonight, Herman Cain was only one of two to visit the spin room personally, taking as his first question from a reporter wondering if his 999 flat tax program sounds more like a meal deal from his old job running Godfather's Pizza. "The media is attempting to boil this down into a two or three person race," he said, grabbing what little media attention he could at a debate dominated by rivals Perry and Mitt Romney. "I know first hand the American people aren't going to let the media pick this nominee."
Democratic leader Debbie Wasserman Schultz and candidate Rick Santorum rounded out the big names who stopped by to spin the assembled media troops (sadly, celebrities such as Chuck Norris and Victoria Jackson skipped the fun). The lack of hefty names lent the air of a big event deflated -- a debate many of the candidates were ready to move past the moment host Wolf Blitzer stepped offstage.
Perry the frontrunner seemed to struggle with being the guy everyone took shots at, rattled by Michele Bachmann's assertion he helped a campaign contributor by requiring HPV vaccinations and drawing boos from tea partiers for defending providing education credits to illegal immigrants.
The debate itself revealed the conservative core of activists who have pushed the GOP to the right this election season, applauding Ron Paul when he essentially advocated letting sick, uninsured people who can't pay for medical care die, along with calls to eliminate government agencies such as the Department of Education and Department of Energy.
CNN handled the production adroitly, switching between questioners in the audience in Tampa to those at distant rally locations and still others weighing in on Twitter. Blitzer was a gentle catalyst, encouraging candidate to take each other on -- especially at the debate's start when he seemed eager to see Perry and Romney face off over Social Security (tip to Gov. Perry; don't call Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" one week before visiting a state with one of the highest amounts of retirees in the nation).
Otherwise, Bachmann picked her shots carefully, rarely dominating the debate but getting in some impactful comments. Newt Gingrich showed a surprising ability to galvanize applause with attacks against Obama just before undercutting his appeal with condescending asides. And Jon Huntsman came across -- as CNN analyst and former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer noted -- like "the teacher whose class you always want to cut," falling flat with ill-aimed jokes and positions which failed to resonate with such a conservative group.