TAMPA — Before the Spin Room was even set up, the spin machines were at work.
More than 100 journalists from print, broadcast and the Internet gathered in the Entertainment Hall of the Florida State Fairgrounds here to watch via big-screen television the debate among eight Republican candidates for president.
Until just minutes before the debates’s 8 p.m. start, the Entertainment Hall video feed was the same CNN broadcast seen across the nation and access to the adjacent debate hall wasn’t available to most of those with credentials.
But what the journalists did have, that they wouldn’t have had if they had, say, channel surfed between CNN/Tea Party Express debate and Monday Night Football, was access to the Spin Room.
A curtained off quarter of the hall, the Spin Room offered each candidate’s camp space for aids dedicated to putting the best face on whatever their man, or woman, said, or didn’t say, during the debate.
In the high-tech world of Twitter and e-mail, the spinning was off to an early start.
The candidates were just arriving by bus and van when candidate Mitt Romney’s team fired the first salvo over what was anticipated to be the evening’s hot topic — Social Security.
“I wanted to make sure you saw the below document we put out regarding Gov. ( Rick) Perry’s latest retreat on Social Security. As you know, Gov. Perry has questioned whether the federal government should even be in the business of providing pensions and has suggested the responsibility be turned over to the states. He did not address either of those issues in op-ed he wrote in USA Today,” Romney spokesman Andrea Saul e-mailed Monday afternoon.
Saul contrasted Perry’s comments in a Monday piece in USA Today, in which he wrote, “America’s goal must be to fix Social Security by making it more financially sound and sustainable for the long term,” with Sept. 7 comments in which he called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” and his book, “Fed Up,” in which he wrote, “Social Security Is Something That We’ve Been Forced To Accept For More Than 70 Years Now.”
Perry’s team meanwhile touted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s endorsement of Perry.
Jindal was put right to work, echoing Perry’s line about his Social Security comments.
“Rick Perry is going to be honest with the American people,” Jindal said less than an hour before the debate.
Romney had an endorsement of his own to announce, that of Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota and until recently, a contender for the Republican nomination.
Michele Bachmann asked her supporters to watch her appearance on Fox News after the debate and to spread the word via Twitter.
Perry’s Internet staff formed a “Truth Team” to put out statements during the debate.
Minutes into the event they were at work, pointing out that in his book, Romney said Amereican people had been defrauded out of Social Security.
Herman Cain’s communications team hosted a CainCast on Internet radio to preview the debate. Once it began, they put his best lines on Twitter seconds after they were delivered. When Social Security’s status or non-status as a “Ponzi scheme” came up early on, Cain’s web site quickly quoted him. “I don’t care what you call it. It’s broken.”
Bachmann’s team did as well. “We have to be an ownership society where personal responsibility once again becomes the overriding American principle,” was posted on her web site almost as soon as the words left her lips.
Prior to the debate, pundits predicted the field would probe frontrunner Rick Perry for weak spots. They may have found one in Perry’s decision as governor of Texas to mandate cervical cancer inoculations for young girls.
Bachmann and Rick Santorum scored points with the audience by calling the policy misguided and an example of big government run amok. The Perry Truth Team shot back on Twitter, “Perry stands for life/parents had final decision on proposed vaccine.”
Perry also stumbled when the topic of in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants came up. Perry signed a bill in Texas granting it. But as Perry’s answers on stage seemed awkward, his bloggers were on Twitter trying to undo any damage. “TX tuition bill had no citizenship component,” and, “Rick Perry signed law to prevent driver licenses for illegals.”
All the instantaneous spin almost makes the Spin Room obsolete. But not quite. As soon as the debate ended the assembled press descended on area, devouring quotes from one spin team then moving on to the next.
Bachmann press secretary Alice Stewart wanted to stress the points her candidate made on the issue of cancer inoculations. “She did a fantastic job in the debate. She was able to show a sharp contrast particularly with Gov. Perry.”
Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom fielded questions with a spinmeister’s aplomb. How did Perry do? “He came into the debate with a Social Security problem and he left with a Social Security problem.”
Why did Perry appear to get more applause inside the hall? “What you saw was Mitt Romney not pandering.”
What about the Jindal endorsement of Perry? “Gov. Jindal is a governor Mitt Romney respects but we’re glad to have the endorsement of Tim Pawlenty.”
Running a no nonsense campaign, Cain acted as his own message machine, talking to reporters in the Spin Room. “We are a country in crisis. I have a solution for every one of these crises,” Cain said.
In the spin room, there’s no problem a candidate can’t solve.
Who do tea party devotees want as the Republican candidate for president?
The closest thing to consensus coming out of a gathering of members Monday prior to the debate at the state fairgrounds in Tampa raises more questions than it answers.
CNN anchor John King asked a group attending a pre-debate luncheon how many had decided who to vote for.
Only a few hands went up.
King then asked how many are satisfied with the field of candidates running for the nomination. About half those in attendance put up a hand.
Then someone in the back of the room shouted, “Run Sarah, run,” eliciting a roar of approval.
Sarah, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for anyone living a politics-free existence, hasn’t declared her intention to run or not run for president. Nor is she on the dais for the Monday night debate.
Republican insider Al Cardenas doesn’t know when Florida will hold its presidential preference primary, but on the other hand, he knows when Florida will hold its presidential preference primary.
“The leadership in the (Florida) House and Senate are committed to making Florida the fifth state (to hold a primary,” said Cardenas former chairman of the state party and now chairman of the American Conservative Union.
That means Florida will hold its primary right after the traditional early primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.
It may mean scheduling it for a Saturday, Cardenas said, if that’s what it takes to cut in front of Michigan or other states that may seek to elevate their importance in the process by advancing their primary dates.
A nine-member committee appointed by the governor, the house speaker and the president of the senate will meet Oct. 30 to firm up the date. It could happen in early March, while the state Legislature is still in session.
Cardenas predicts the committee will do whatever it takes to cement Florida’s position as the first big state to hold a primary and one that could very well determine the nominee.
“I have no doubt the will of the governor, the speaker and the (senate) president will be carried out. Florida was a big state for Republicans last time and it will be again,” he said.
“Issues that Matter to Conservative Voters” was the title of a panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation Monday before the evening’s debate in Tampa.
The attendees, mostly tea party activists, predictably cited federal spending, taxes, the national debt and the scope of government.
But even while they agreed on issues, they didn’t necessarily agree on solutions.
Cardenas was booed when he argued that immigration reform can’t be as simple as sealing the borders and rounding up everyone without proper documentation.
Bille Tucker, a tea party leader on the panel was cheered for stating bluntly, “Illegal is illegal.”
Cardenas won some attendees over when he pointed out that the United States social services safety net has gotten so expansive that there really are jobs Americans won’t do. “You can live a comfortable life,” without working menial jobs, Cardenas asserted.
Some attendees clearly wanted to focus on economic issues.
But two audience members asked panelists to address United Nations Agenda 21, an initiative some believe is intended to transfer U.S. sovereignty to the international body.
Moderator John King elicited grumbles when he cut the second questioner short and moved the discussion back to “other issues.”
If the marriage between CNN and the Tea Party Express seems odd to you, you’re not alone.
Even the tea party activists populating preliminary events in advance of Monday’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate among Republican presidential hopefuls in Tampa questioned how the assuredly conservative tea party and the allegedly liberal news network came to be co-sponsors.
“Strange bedfellows,” conceded Pete Braud, a tea party activist who made the 210-mile trip from Jacksonville to attend the debate and a luncheon beforehand sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“We were very skeptical” echoed Paula Schaff, president of the Punta Gorda tea party.
CNN, with its banners plastered all over the Florida State Fairgrounds and anchor John King moderating the luncheon discussion, “Issues that Matter to Conservative Voters,” was the easiest target, but all the media received a measure of scorn from the 150 or tea party members from as far away as California who attended the event.
Panelist Billie Tucker received a standing ovation when she included media coverage of the 2008 election along with the economic downturn, Bush fatigue and a weak Republican candidate as one reason Barack Obama was elected president.
“There was another factor that played into the 2008 election and that was the media,” said Tucker, leader of the First Coast Tea Party of Florida.
“We were screaming at our TVs John,” she told King. “I’m not talking just to you John, but every media out there. You have a responsibility to tell the whole truth.”
Tucker helped coordinate debate arrangements between CNN and the Tea Party Express, an amalgam of loosely affiliated tea party chapters across the country.
She credited the network for making an effort to reach out to conservatives.
“CNN has been awesome through the whole thing,” she said. “It’s not CNN that has always been the bad guy. Fox News, … we’re not happy with them either.”
The relationship with CNN can bring the tea party’s message to a new constituency, Tucker said.
“We appreciate what CNN has done, reaching out to the tea party,” she said. “We are not a bunch of terrorists.”
Said Braud to King: “I’m glad you’re here. We can preach to the choir but you bring an audience that will be great.”
King defended himself and his network against charges of bias.
“I try to do my job fairly. I respect the other business model but Fox and MSNBC don’t do what we do,” he said. “We try all the time to expand the voices CNN brings to the conversation. There are eight, 10, 12 sometimes 50 sides to the story. We try to have a more open conversation.”
King, in fact, was warmly received by the tea party audience _ until it was announced he a Boston Red Sox fan. While the crowd was made up of people from all over, its bias toward the New York Yankees, who train in Tampa, was evident.
King quieted the grumblers by pointing out that tea party members tend to support free markets and that means competition. “Competition is good,” he reminded them.