CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer says there is one, overriding reason why he'll be anchoring his signature show, The Situation Room, from the Florida State Fairgrounds at 5 p.m. today.
Because on Monday, Blitzer will quiz the top eight Republican presidential candidates at the fairgrounds for CNN's first debate partnership with the conservative Tea Party Express wing of the GOP.
And, easy as he may make it seem juggling questions from the audience, at distant locations and over social media, coordinating all that material actually takes some rehearsal.
"We're going to spend all day (today) and Saturday preparing," said Blitzer, who will fly to Washington, D.C., Sunday and anchor part of CNN's 9/11 anniversary coverage before returning to Tampa Monday. "It's a lot of work — a lot of research into these candidates' positions — and we want to be fully prepared for everything."
But Blitzer won't be alone.
Anchor Don Lemon will host evening shows Saturday and Sunday from the fairgrounds, while Ali Velshi leads American Morning broadcasts Monday and Tuesday and John King hosts his John King USA program at 7 p.m. Monday, just before the debate's 8 p.m. start.
"We tried to identify which states the tea party had a significant impact, and Florida emerged as a really good example," said Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "The tea party was really influential in Gov. Rick Scott's election, and there are quite a number of tea party members who are active. Put that all together, and Tampa feels like the right spot."
Some critics have groused that media outlets such as CNN have helped give the tea party the clout it now enjoys, treating the group as a separate political party, despite its status as a conservative wing inside the GOP.
But Blitzer compared the debate partnership to a previous CNN debate with the Congressional Black Caucus years ago. "The important thing is: Are we going to help them better define who these candidates are?" he said, predicting lots of discussion on jobs, Social Security and limiting government. "If everybody emerges from this debate a little bit smarter … I don't have a problem teaming up (with the tea party)."
The debate will feature questions from the audience, which is to include members from tea party groups in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Blitzer also will take questions from debate watch parties in Phoenix, Cincinnati and Portsmouth, Va., and solicit questions on CNNPolitics.com, the CNN Politics Facebook page and the Twitter hashtag #CNNTeaParty.
The candidates are: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Feist said CNN limited participation to candidates who scored more than 2 percent support in national polls by a certain date.