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GOP candidates' debate in Tampa ramps up Florida offensive against Obama

September is Republican-palooza month in Florida.

For the next few weeks, the eight or so Republican presidential candidates will take their Barack Obama bashing-based campaigns to the nation's most important swing state. They'll debate tonight in Tampa, and they'll debate again later in Orlando, where they'll also speak to a national conservative conference.

Crowning it all off: the Republican Party of Florida's Sept. 24 straw poll — the best measurement of a candidate's viability in a state that mirrors the nation's political mood.

There will be one clear loser: President Obama. At least in the short-term. The Republicans will control the microphone throughout the debates, forum and straw poll. Amid all that, they'll likely continue pounding the president on the economy at fundraisers, rallies and in interviews with TV stations, newspapers and bloggers throughout the state.

"It'll make a difference because Florida isn't just any state. Whoever wins Florida or Ohio wins the White House," said Gene Ulm, a pollster for Washington-based Public Opinion Strategies, a firm that polls for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

"You guys aren't just anybody. A little bit of news coverage is a lot in a state like Florida. Whoever wins, will win by a slight amount," Ulm said. "So everything matters in Florida."

The economy matters most. Florida's unemployment and home foreclosure rates are higher than in the rest of the nation. Consumer confidence is down — and so are Obama's approval ratings in the state, where polls show more voters disapprove of his job performance.

Democrats and the Obama campaign could end up having to spend upward of $100 million to secure his election in Florida, a state Republicans need to win the presidency.

But the more the Republicans stray from the issue of jobs and the economy, the more liable they are for gaffes or stirring up controversy that could haunt them in the primary election or, ultimately, a matchup against the president.

"There's one thing more important than the microphone: the message. And some of what these guys say is crazy," said Mo Elleithee, a Florida political consultant based in Washington who worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign. "I want these guys out there talking. In Florida, there's a real chance they'll help us just by opening their mouths as they try to out-tea party one another."

Already, Republican front-runner Rick Perry is catching some political grief from Romney and Democrats after the Texas governor said in Wednesday's debate that Social Security was a "Ponzi scheme," and that it was a "monstrous lie" to tell young people that it shouldn't be reformed.

The comment resonates in a state like Florida where about half of the electorate is over 60.

Perry's fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul, has called for an end to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has helped states such as Florida respond to disasters like hurricanes. And Rep. Michele Bachmann said during a recent campaign swing that she would be open to some oil exploration in the Everglades.

While Democrats also hope to capitalize on the unpopularity of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Obama's disapproval ratings are almost as high. The president's friend and ally, Sen. Bill Nelson, recently acknowledged Obama has made "mistakes" and he didn't say whether he'd campaign with the president this election season.

Nelson, though, praised Obama's speech and proposal Thursday for a $447 billion jobs plan — $240 billion of which relies on tax cuts that Republicans such as Bachmann have supported.

Obama said he'd recommend deficit reductions to offset the cost of the plan, imploring Congress 17 times to pass it. "I intend to take that message to every corner of this country," the president said in an electioneering-style address that his campaign echoed in 140-character Twitter bursts.

Sooner than later, he's bound to stump in the southernmost corner of the nation, Florida. It's unclear if he'll travel to the state in September or just after. But his campaign is gearing up in Florida, calling voters and beginning the process of registering new voters.

At tonight's the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will spearhead the response to the Republicans.

The Weston representative will probably do the same Sept. 22 at the Republican Party of Florida's Presidency 5 debate in Orlando broadcast on FOX. The following day in Orlando, the major Republican candidates will address the Conservative Political Action Conference. The next day, Sept. 24, 3,500 Republican grass roots activists and Republican leaders will vote on their favorite candidates in a straw poll.

Perry announced last week that he was "fully committed" to the straw poll and debate. Florida's primary election will probably be in mid February. That vote could well decide the Republican nominee — especially if Perry wins earlier in Iowa or South Carolina, or both.

Along with his surging poll numbers nationwide, Perry looks likely — but only right now — to be the Republican nominee when the party holds its convention next year in Tampa.

Dave Beattie, a pollster for Nelson, said independent voters, who ultimately decide Florida elections, probably won't tune in too much to the Republican candidates in the coming weeks. But, he acknowledged that they'll take a toll on Obama, who could benefit as GOP candidates start dropping out after they lose the Florida straw poll.

"The sooner that field narrows — rather than expands — the better it is for the president because then it's a debate of my vision or their vision. There's a clear choice. That's how you engage all the voters."

GOP debate tonight in Tampa

Time/TV: 8-10 p.m., CNN.

Where: Florida State Fairgrounds, 4800 U.S. 301 N.

Hosts: CNN, the Tea Party Express, and more than 100 local tea party groups from every state.

Participants: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Moderated by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

GOP candidates' debate in Tampa ramps up Florida offensive against Obama 09/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 12, 2011 7:31am]
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