The Washington Times - September 13, 2011, 02:07PM

“I walked into that debate thinking I knew who I favored in the very beginning, and by the very end I walked out completely undecided again,” said a Florida tea party activist to me after last night’s CNN Tea Party Express debate in Tampa.

CNN certainly showed on Monday night that a cable news network could structure a format for eight presidential candidates and allow each one to get out their points regardless of where each candidate stood in the polls. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, usually frustrated as a result of being ignored by debate moderators in the past, later told me he was satisfied with the debate format.

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 “It was an opportunity to engage. I appreciated the opportunity to engage and to move it around a little bit. I appreciated the opportunity to participate in the debate this time unlike the last time. They did a whole heck of a lot better than MSNBC did.”

In California last week, the debate MSNBC sponsored with Politico focused primarily on the two current front-runners, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The MSNBC-Politico debate was Perry’s debut in a debate with the other GOP candidates, so Santorum was pushed away along with Iowa Straw Poll winner Rep. Michele Bachmann among other candidates that evening. 

Although most political observers knew that CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer would hit the social security issue a lot, given the media’s conniption fit over Texas Governor Rick Perry’s apt description of it as a Ponzi scheme, the addition of tea party activists was key in bringing in some of the best questions and issues of the night. 

From the beginning, Romney made sure that the differences between himself and Perry on social security were clear. “I think most people agree with, although the term ‘Ponzi scheme’ I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people,” Romney said. The Massachusetts Republican went on to criticize Perry about believing the federal funding of social security is unconstitutional and that the issue should go back to the states to handle. 

Romney added to his points against Perry’s on social security saying,  “…that view, and the view that somehow Social Security has been forced on us over the past 70 years that by any measure, again quoting book, by any measure Social Security has been a failure, this is after 70 years of tens of millions of people relying on Social Security, that’s a very different matter.”

Perry responded, “If what you’re trying to say is that back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s that the federal government made all the right decision, I disagree with you.  And it’s time for us to get back to the constitution and a program that’s been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we’re not going to take that program away. ”

From there, both men hit back at one another on whether or not social security should be ended as a federal program. 

One tea party activist raised the issue of when the president should be issuing executive orders. This question brought about an intense battle over a controversial executive order Rick Perry signed in Texas that mandated 11 and 12 year old girls to get vaccinated to prevent an STD that could lead to cervical cancer. Even after Governor Perry admitted he should have gone to the state legislature as opposed to signing an executive order, Rep. Bachmann and Sen. Santorum pounded him harder on the issue.

“I’m a mom.  And I’m a mom of three children.  And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong.  That should never be done.  It’s a violation of a liberty interest,” she said.” Bachmann came in with a larger hammer and hit Perry with some opposition research her campaign staff apparently dug up on the executive order Mr. Perry signed.

“I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate,” Bachmann said. 

She continued, “What I’m saying is that it’s wrong for a drug company, because the governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company.  The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong.” 

Perry responded he only received a $5,000 donation from the drug company, Merck, from the overall $30 million he raised saying, “And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

Santorum jumped in and went after Perry on the vaccine mandate telling the debate audience, “Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their school by way of their curriculum, then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government.  This is big government run amok.  It is bad policy, and it should not have been done.”

Conservatives on Twitter lit up with excitement when a Tea Party activist from California asked,  “Out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?” The crowd in the audience exploded with applause and cheers, while Bachmann exclaimed, “Oh, I love that question. I love that question.” 

However, CNN’s Blitzer directed the first response to that question over to former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman who blew it. Instead of giving a simple answer that could have helped his struggling campaign, he gave a rambling answer that included three different tax rates on the individual income tax side. Then, he proceeded to go after lobbyists. 

“On the corporate side, I think we recognize the reality that a whole lot of companies can afford to have lobbyists and lawyers on Capitol Hill working their magic,” Huntsman said.  “Let’s recognize the reality that they’re all paying 35 percent.  We need to lower that to 25 percent.  So let’s phase out the corporate subsidies and clean out the cobwebs and leave it more competitive for the 21st century.”

If Huntsman is the liberal media’s favorite candidate, Blitzer did him no favors by giving him that California tea partier’s question. Other candidates on stage were practically salivating to answer it, but Huntsman was the sole responder on that one.

One response that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave that received enormous applause for was an answer to a question from Blitzer about tax subsides that oil companies receive.

“You know, I thought for a second, you were going to refer to General Electric, which has paid no taxes,” the former speaker snarked.  One must wonder how a remark like that would have gone over in California last week if Gingrich said that on MSNBC.

Former business executive Herman Cain caught an applause line of his own, when he talked about his 9 – 9  - 9 tax plan – “A 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 national sales tax,” Mr. Cain explained and as he as reiterated many times before.

He then said, “Now I’ve been told by some people, well, you can’t get that done.  I say why? Well, because you don’t know how Washington works.  Yes, I do.  It doesn’t.”

Although, Governor Perry pointed to the passage of tort reform laws in his state that helped Texas economically, Texas Congressman Ron Paul went after Perry for taking credit for the creation of one million jobs Texas jobs. 

“I’m a taxpayer there.  My taxes have gone up.  Our taxes have doubled since he’s been in office.  Our spending has gone up double. Our debt has gone up nearly triple,” said. Rep. Paul. 

“So, no.  And 170,000 of the jobs were government jobs.  So I would put a little damper on this, but I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something.” 

Mr. Paul, however, later on in the debate drew boos from the crowd when the debate turned to foreign policy and Santorum pointed out that Rep. Paul’s campaign website had a post about 9/11 that blamed the United States foreign policy for provoking the attacks.

Other issues covered included immigration policy, the war in Afghanistan, and how each candidate would reduce medical costs. The next GOP presidential debate will be sponsored by Fox News and Google and held in Orlando.