Candidates line up for last week's debate in Tampa Fla. They meet again Thursday in Orlando. (AP)
Over the next 72 hours, nine presidential candidates and thousands of Republican activists will descend on Orlando, Fla. for a series of events that will include a debate, a conservative conference and a straw poll to compete for the attention of what has become one of the most important swing states in the nation.
The debate, co-hosted by Fox News and Google, will kick off the Florida marathon Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. The candidates will take questions from Fox News hosts and via citizens who post videos on YouTube.com.
Among the contenders, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has remained in the lead nationally since he joined the race last month--and he's ahead of former Gov. Mitt Romney in the state, according to the most recent survey.
In the past two debates, Romney has criticized Perry for his rhetoric on Social Security, and for supporting a proposal to transfer the program from the federal government to the states. Perry has repeatedly called the program that provides federally funded pensions a "Ponzi scheme," and despite Romney's attacks, Perry has refused to back down from his remarks. Romney's campaign this week unveiled a series of questions about how Perry would give states the control of the program. Romney has his own ideas for reforming Social Security, but he has focused more on hitting Perry in the last few debates than explaining them on the debate stage.
Perry has said that he felt like "a piñata" in the last few debates--but it's unlikely that the rest of the GOp field is going to dial down its attacks on the front-runner in Thursday's debate. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann spent much of the past week repeating her attack on the governor for issuing an executive order that required all girls entering the sixth grade to receive an anti-cancer vaccine. (The Texas legislature overruled the measure before it was enacted.) However, Bachmann's objections met with stiff resistance from members of the medical community, so renewing this line of attack could be a calculated risk for the congresswoman. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who appears to have really gotten under Perry's skin in each debate so far, will probably continue to lay into Perry and his record as well--especially as Paul continues to gain ground in the polls.
As for the other lesser-known candidates, expect them to do what they can maximize their limited time in the spotlight. The addition of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in Thursday's debate means that nine candidates will be on the stage in Orlando. Although Fox News has extended the length of the debate, Perry and Romney will likely take up most of the time.
On Friday, the American Conservative Union will host its first regional Conservative Political Action Committee Conference in the same convention hall as the debate, where several of the candidates are scheduled to speak. This will be a chance for the campaigns to show off for the conservative wing of the party before Saturday's straw poll.
The Republican Party of Florida is hosting the straw poll but is restricting participation to just 3,500 delegates chosen by their county caucus. So that means the candidates won't be able to simply bring in supporters by the busload to swarm the survey.
It's going to be a packed three days for the candidates, so stay tuned at The Ticket for all the updates. The Thursday debate will be broadcast live on Fox News.com, Friday's speeches will be streamed on C-SPAN.com and you can catch the straw poll at Presidency5.com.
- Mitt Romney