Floridians are getting an unusually close look at the Republican candidates for president with Monday night's debate in Tampa and next week's debate in Orlando. Halfway through the doubleheader, the first impressions are discouraging for a state with a large number of retirees, high unemployment and an enormous need for affordable health care. The best hope — absent a last-minute fresh face — is that the answers will get better as the field thins, the policy papers roll out and appeals are made to mainstream voters rather than tea party extremists.
Even with eight candidates at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds, the clear front-runners are Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is irrelevant, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann already has lost her conservative support to Perry, and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's ultralibertarian views make him the crazy uncle in the room. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman often offers the most reasonable approaches, but he was off-key Monday night and cannot gain traction in a primary where the most conservative Republicans have tightened their grip. And why are former CEO Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum still on the stage?
Perry's Texas swagger is likely to wear thin in time. His unrepentant attacks on Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" are provocative but hardly presidential and should give all voters pause. He distrusts science and recklessly suggests Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been treasonous. Perry takes too much credit for creating jobs in oil-rich Texas, which lags behind even Florida in its commitment to public education and to helping the uninsured. He makes the last Texas governor to be elected president appear more empathetic and intellectually engaged.
In the tea party environment, Perry's more sensible positions — his skepticism about building a continuous fence along the Mexican border and his defense of in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants who lived in Texas for three years — were derided by Bachmann and the audience. No wonder Democrats are optimistic about President Barack Obama's prospects among Hispanics in Central Florida and in other states.
Romney, who is out of his element in the tea party crowd, appeared more comfortable as a second-time candidate for president and more genuine as he fairly criticized Perry on Social Security. He continues to twist himself into a pretzel defending the Massachusetts health care reforms enacted while he was governor while criticizing the similar national health care reforms under Obama. Only in the Republican primary could insuring nearly all of your state's residents be seen as a negative.
As politically weak as Obama appears now in the midst of this anemic economy, the Republican field appears weaker. Beyond criticizing the incumbent president, the candidates have yet to make a clear case why they should be elected. With his record of accomplishments and intellectual rigor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be a far stronger candidate than any Republican currently in the race. But Bush appears comfortable helping shape the debate on education and other issues from the sidelines. Republicans likely will have to choose from those on stage in Florida over the next two weeks.
It's still unclear which candidates will be left standing by the Florida Republican primary next spring. But it's certain that by then, most of those on the fairgrounds stage Monday night will be long gone.