The St. Petersburg Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100 announced Monday that they will co-sponsor a Republican presidential primary debate early next year. It will be held at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, site of the 2012 Republican National Convention.
It's the first time presidential primary candidates will debate in the arena where one will return to accept the nomination.
It's expected to be the first major debate following the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Broadcast nationally, it underscores Florida's importance in the 2012 election. The state has played a decisive role in recent primary and general election campaigns.
"Florida will be at the center of next year's presidential election, and this is the state where national issues like the economy and health care loom especially large," said Paul Tash, Times chairman and CEO. "Our debate will be a telling preview of the presidential campaign and the Republican convention, right back here at the St. Pete Times Forum."
The Times, the largest newspaper in the Southeast, has sponsored debates for national, state and local offices since 1994. In 1998, the Times and NBC produced back-to-back debates for the U.S. Senate and Florida governor, moderated by the late Meet the Press host Tim Russert.
Each partner in the GOP primary debate, said NBC News president Steve Capus, "brings a unique set of tools and expertise that will all combine to present a substantive and stimulating dialogue to the voters of the state and the whole country."
The Florida Council of 100, the first of its kind in the United States, is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of key Florida business and civic leaders.
"The 2012 election will be a turning point for our state and nation," said council chairman Steven Halverson. "Floridians' economic well-being and quality of life are at stake, and the council is privileged to play a part in the discussion of vital issues that we ourselves have been addressing for the past 50 years."
National Journal, a Washington, D.C.-based digital and print news organization, is co-sponsoring its first-ever debate, said editor-in-chief Ron Fournier, "because we believe there are few missions more important in journalism than helping Americans choose their leaders.''