In the beginning, the mainstream media weren’t quite sure what to make of the Tea Party, which, despite its name, isn’t a party at all. But it has become such a driving force in Republican politics that on Monday night one of its leading groups is cosponsoring a CNN presidential debate in Tampa.
And the candidate with the most at stake is the Tea Party queen herself, Michele Bachmann, who badly needs to capitalize on the sympathetic audience. The congresswoman’s luster has clearly faded since her Iowa straw-poll victory last month, and she was practically invisible in last week’s MSNBC-Politico debate.
Bachmann’s team, which recently lost the full-time services of campaign manager Ed Rollins, was steamed that she got relatively few questions at the debate. Moderators Brian Williams and John Harris clearly kept the spotlight focused on Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, and their sparring dominated not just the evening but the headlines for days afterward.
Bachmann took no swings at the Texas governor, who has rocketed to the top of the GOP polls, but there are signs she will take him on Monday—if only to grab a share of the limelight. The format could not be better suited to Bachmann—a single moderator (Wolf Blitzer) who will allow questions from Tea Party activists in the audience and similar groups watching around the country.
So far, Bachmann has mainly stuck to generalities. She told Radio Iowa last week that “I’ve demonstrated something that the other candidates haven’t. That’s a level of consistency as a conservative.”
But in Perry, Tea Party types get a potential nominee who is about as conservative as she is while also boasting more than a decade of executive experience. And Bachmann has seemed unsure how to follow up her straw-poll win, generally sticking to scripted soundbites slamming President Obama and failing to expand her hardcore following.
In the Iowa radio interview, Bachmann said it was “wrong to make senior citizens believe that they should be nervous about something they have come to count on”—a veiled slap at Perry without naming him. The Texan gave his rivals a huge opening at the MSNBC debate by repeating his criticism of Social Security as an unconstitutional “Ponzi scheme”—one that trampled on states’ rights when it was created—without offering a prescription to fix it.
A Bachmann adviser told the Washington Examiner: “Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America. Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Governor Perry does. She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it’s an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives.” Of course, the criticism would be much stronger if not coming from an anonymous aide.
Romney, unlike Bachmann, has been pummeling Perry on the issue. In a campaign flyer, the former Massachusetts governor called Perry “reckless and wrong” on Social Security. “How can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?” it asks.
Perry’s camp has responded that Romney, in a policy book, has compared the management of the retirement program to a felony. Perry has no intention of changing the program for those who are near retirement age, his aides say.
One question mark here may be the Tea Party. While its activists regularly denounce out-of-control government spending, they tend to be protective of such middle-class entitlements as Social Security and Medicare.
Perry faces a strategic decision in Tampa. He can either soften his previous comments, which would make him appear to vacillate, or suggest a plan for to fix what he views as a house of cards before it collapses.
No single debate is as important as the storyline that emerges from it. Perry must show that he can stop the bleeding on a sensitive issue. Romney, who scored few points by attacking Perry’s jobs record, needs to prove he is nimble enough to stay on offense. And Bachmann, after being relegated to the sidelines, has to get into the arena.