ANNOUNCER: Tonight, eight Republicans, one goal: to win the White House and kick Barack Obama out.
Cheering them on, their powerful allies and fierce critics, the grassroots movement putting a bold stamp on this election, the Tea Party.
Tonight’s players –
FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R-MA.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I love America . I’ll fight for America .
ANNOUNCER: — Mitt Romney, the early front-runner –
ANNOUNCER: — focused on attacking the president, now turning his
attention to a more immediate opponent –
GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I’m going to be a pro-business president, and I’m not going to make any apologies about it.
ANNOUNCER: Rick Perry, the newcomer. He got a late start, then surged to the front of the pack, with a conservative voice, folksy and brash.
Michele Bachmann, the firebrand.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We’re here to win.
ANNOUNCER: She aced an early test in Iowa , proving she’s a top-tier contender, as well as a lightning rod.
The rest of the field in search of a breakthrough.
Jon Huntsman, the diplomat, carving a more moderate path to try to defeat his ex-boss, the president.
Ron Paul, the Libertarian, billing himself as the freedom fighter in the race.
Rick Santorum, the fighter, known for throwing hard punches from the right.
Herman Cain, the businessman who plays up his experience as a pizza executive and his inexperience in politics.
Newt Gingrich, the big thinker, once the most powerful man in the House, now looking for traction after early stumbles.
Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The Tea Party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.
WOLF BLITZER, DEBATE MODERATOR AND CNN LEAD POLITICAL ANCHOR: And welcome to the Florida State Fairgrounds here in Tampa , the site of the first ever Tea Party/Republican presidential debate.
One year from now, right here in Tampa , the Republican National Convention will nominate the Republican candidate for president of the United States .
Tonight, eight contenders will be on this stage to try to convince voters he or she is the best choice to hold the highest office in the country. And joining them inside this hall, Tea Party activists from Florida and across the nation.
I’m Wolf Blitzer.
I’d like to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world, including U.S. troops and their families watching overseas.
Tonight’s debate is airing on CNN, CNN International, CNN en Espanol, and the American Forces Network seen on U.S. military bases in 175 countries and aboard Navy ships at sea around the globe.
We also want to welcome our co-sponsors, the Tea Party Express, and more than 100 state and local Tea Party groups from across the United States .
Members of the Tea Party movement will play an active role in this debate. We’ll take questions from here in Florida , one of the most critical battleground states in the nation. We’ll also take questions from Tea Party activists in three other key states.
Watch parties are under way right now in Portsmouth , Virginia , an historic Navy port and a 2012 election battleground. In Phoenix , Arizona , the western states shaping the national debate over immigration. And in Cincinnati , Ohio , the Midwestern swing state that has been decisive in so many elections.
It’s time now to meet the 2012 Republican presidential contenders.
Joining us now on stage, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania , Rick Santorum.
BLITZER: The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.
BLITZER: Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
BLITZER: Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
ROMNEY: Hey, guys. Hi.
BLITZER: Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
The former president and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain.
And the former governor of Utah , Jon Huntsman.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Republican candidates for president of the United States .
Ladies and gentlemen, please rise now and join recording artist Diana Nagy as she leads us in the national anthem.
DIANA NAGY, RECORDING ARTIST: (SINGS “STAR-SPANGLED BANNER”
BLITZER: Diana Nagy, thanks very, very much.
Candidates, please take your podiums. And while you do, I want to tell all of our viewers, everyone here a little bit more about how this debate will work.
I, obviously, will be the moderator. I’ll ask questions and follow-ups, and I’ll work to try my best to make sure that each candidate is getting his or her fair share of the questions and the answer time. And as I mentioned, the tea party activists will be asking questions here in the hall, as well as from our remote sites.
And, viewers, you, too, can participate. We’re accepting questions for the candidates on Twitter — make sure to include #cnnteaparty — on Facebook and, of course, on cnnpolitics.com. Each candidate will have about one minute to answer questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups and rebuttals. I’ll make sure that each candidate gets the time to respond if they are singled out for specific criticism.
It’s important that the American public knows where the candidates agree on the substantive issues and where they disagree. We want everyone watching to emerge from this debate more informed about these eight people, who each want to become the president of the United States .
Now that the candidates are all in place, it’s time for the candidates to introduce themselves to our audience. I’m asking them all to keep it very, very short. Here’s an example of what I have in mind.
I’m Wolf Blitzer, and I’m usually in “The Situation Room,” but tonight I’m thrilled to be at the Tea Party Republican presidential debate.
Governor Huntsman, we’ll begin with you.
FORMER GOV. JON HUNTSMAN JR. (R-UT.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wolf, delighted to be here. Yesterday, we were reminded how extraordinary this country is when we pull together during a time of need. Today, ladies and gentlemen, we are deeply divided. I believe I have the experience and the leadership necessary to move this country forward.
HERMAN CAIN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I’m Herman Cain. I am the only non-politician on this stage tonight, and I believe that America has become a nation of crises. That’s why I want to be president of the United States of America .
BACHMANN: My name is Michele Bachmann. I know we can do so much better in this country. That’s why I’m the chief author of the bill to repeal Dodd-Frank, the bill to repeal Obamacare. And that’s why I brought the voice of the Tea Party to the United States Congress as the founder of the Tea Party Caucus.
ROMNEY: My name is Mitt Romney. And like you, I recognize that America ‘s economy is in crisis. Got a lot of people without work, and a lot of people wonder whether the future is going to be brighter for their kids. I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how jobs come to America and why they go. And I want to use that experience to get America growing again, adding jobs, and assuring every citizen that they know that their kid and their grandkid will have a brighter future. Thank you.
PERRY: I’m Governor Rick Perry. And I’m proud to be here today with the Tea Party Express. And I simply want to get America working again and make Washington , D.C. , as inconsequential in your life as I can.
REP. RON PAUL, (R-TX.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I’m Congressman Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas . I’ve been in the Congress for 20 years. My goal has always been to promote the cause of liberty and to obey the Constitution. I plan to do that as president, as well.
FORMER REP. NEWT GINGRICH, (R-GA.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I’m Newt Gingrich. I think it is totally appropriate that we’re having this particular debate on 9/12. And in the spirit of 9/12, I hope to work with you to fundamentally, profoundly change Washington in what will be a long and difficult struggle against the forces of reaction and special interests.
FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, (R-PA.), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I’m Rick Santorum. I’m a former two-term senator from a state that has over a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, and I won two elections there without having to change my policies or my party to win.
BLITZER: Ladies and gentlemen, the eight Republican presidential candidates.
All right. Let’s — let’s start off here in Tampa . We have a Tea Party activist. Please identify yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Tea Party, Jacksonville , Florida . My question:
How will you convince senior citizens that Social Security and Medicare need to be changed and get their vote?
BLITZER: Good question. Let me begin with Michele Bachmann.
Congresswoman, how do you do that? How do you go ahead and change, reform Social Security, Medicare, while at the same time getting votes?
BACHMANN: Well, one thing that we need to let senior citizens know is, for those who are currently on the Social Security system, the United States government made a promise to senior citizens, and we have to keep that promise to them.
But we also need to know that for those who are not yet on the system, the system simply has to be reformed in order for it to work. The same goes with Medicare. We know that President Obama stole over $500 billion out of Medicare to switch it over to Obamacare. We also know that Medicare hospital trust fund will be bankrupt within nine years.
These are programs that need to be saved to serve people, and in their current form, they can’t.
So we need to have someone who understands these programs, who — who understands the solutions to these programs. I’m a person that’s had feet in the private sector and a foot in the federal government. I’ve been there long enough to know the problems, but not long enough to become a part of the system. I know what to do, and I have the core of conviction to be able to make the changes that senior citizens can count on.
BLITZER: Governor Perry, speaking of Social Security, you’ve said in the past it’s a Ponzi scheme, an absolute failure, unconstitutional, but today you wrote an article in USA Today saying it must be saved and reformed, very different tone. Why?
PERRY: Well, first off, the people who are on Social Security today need to understand something. Slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those. Those individuals that are moving towards being on Social Security, that program’s going to be there for them when they arrive there.
But the idea that we have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face, young mid-career professionals or kids that are my children’s age and look them in the eye and said, listen, this is a broken system. It has been called a ponzi scheme by many people long before me. But no one’s had the courage to stand up and say, here is how we’re going to reform it.
We’re going to transform it for those in those mid-career ages, but we’re going to fix it so that our young Americans that are going out into the workforce today will know without a doubt that there were some people who came along that didn’t lie to them, that didn’t try to go around the edges and told them the truth.
BLITZER: Governor Romney, you said that Governor Perry’s position on Social Security is, quote, unacceptable and could even obliterate the Republican Party. Are you saying he could not, as Republican nominee, beat Barack Obama?
ROMNEY: No, what I’m saying is that what he just said, I think most people agree with, although the term ponzi scheme I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people. But the real issue is in writing his book, Governor Perry pointed out that in his view that Social Security is unconstitutional, that this is not something the federal government ought to be involved in, that instead it should be given back to the states.
And I think 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.
So the financing of Social Security, we’ve all talked about at great length. In the last campaign four years around, John McCain said it was bankrupt. I put in my book a series of proposals on how to get it on sound financial footing so that our kids can count on it not just our current seniors.
But the real question is does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states or is he going to retreat from that view?
BLITZER: Let’s let Governor Perry respond. You have 30 seconds.
PERRY: 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. But for people to stand up and support what they did in the ’30s or what they’re doing in the 2010s is not appropriate for America .
ROMNEY: But the question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from taht?
PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation.
ROMNEY: We’re having that right now, governor. We’re running for president.
PERRY: And I’ll finish this conversation. But the issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or for retirees? We did in the state of Texas back in the 1980s. I think those types of thoughtful conversations with America, rather than trying to scare seniors like you’re doing and other people, it’s time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it’s not bankrupt and our children actually know that there’s going to be a retirement program there for them.
ROMNEY: Governor, the term ponzi scheme is what scared seniors, number one. And number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states and unconstitutional is likewise frightening.
Look, there are a lot of bright people who agree with you. And that’s your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program that we should change the way we’re funding it. You called it a criminal…
PERRY: You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That’s in your book.
ROMNEY: Yeah, what I said was…
ROMNEY: Governor Perry you’ve got to quote me correctly. You said it’s criminal. What I said was congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and that is and it’s wrong.
BLITZER: Congressman Paul, let me expand this conversation. Do you agree with Governor Perry that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme?
PAUL: Well, I agree that Social Security is broke. We spent all the money and it’s on its last legs unless we do something. One bill that I had in congress never got passed was to prevent the congress from spending any of that money on the wars and all the nonsense that we do around the world.
Now the other thing that I would like to see done is a transition. I think it’s terrible that the Social Security system is in the — the problems it has, but if people wouldn’t have spent the money we would be OK.
Now, what I would like to do is to allow all the young people to get out of Social Security and go on their own. Now, the big question is, is how would the funding occur?
BLITZER: All right. Hold that thought for a minute, because I want Herman Cain to get involved.
Are you with Governor Perry that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme?
CAIN: I don’t care what you call it, it’s broken. And here’s my solution.
CAIN: Start with optional personal retirement accounts. In 1981, the Galveston County employees, they opted out because that was a very short window of opportunity. They took it.
Today, when people retire in Galveston County , Texas , they retire making at least 50 percent more than they would ever get out of Social Security.
Secondly, allow younger workers to have personal retirement accounts as an option.
Now, to answer this gentleman’s question, current seniors will not be affected. It’s to give the option to the younger workers.
The Galveston County model worked, and it also worked in the small country of Chile . Instead of giving it to the states, let’s give it back to the workers. That’s what personal retirement accounts will do.
BLITZER: Governor Huntsman, when it comes to reforming Social Security, is anything from your perspective off the table?
HUNTSMAN: I don’t think anything should be off the table except maybe some of the drama that’s playing out here on this floor today. I mean, to hear these two go at it over here, it’s almost incredible.
You’ve got Governor Romney, who called it a fraud in his book “No Apology.” I don’t know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not. And then you’ve got Governor Perry, who is calling this a Ponzi scheme.
All I know, Wolf, is that we’re frightening the American people who just want solutions. And this party isn’t going to win in 2012 unless we get our act together and fix the problem.
We all know that we’ve got entitlement problems, we’ve got Medicare, we’ve got Social — the fixes are there. I mean, the Ryan plan is there, for heaven’s sake.
We’ve got the answers. We don’t have leadership. That’s the problem.
BLITZER: Speaker Gingrich, would you raise the retirement age for Social Security recipients?
GINGRICH: No, not necessarily, but let me start with — I’m not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day.
GINGRICH: This is eating into my time.
Let me just say to all of you –
BLITZER: Let me just pinpoint the question. What would you do to fix Social Security?
GINGRICH: OK. But can I also expand for a second? Because that was not a rhetorical joke.
President Obama twice said recently he couldn’t guarantee delivering the checks to Social Security recipients. Now, why should young people who are 16 to 25 years old have politicians have the power for the rest of their life to threaten to take away their Social Security?
GINGRICH: Now, I just want to make two simple points about Social Security and how you save it.
The first is, you get back to a full employment economy, and at four percent unemployment you have such a huge increase in funding, that you change every single out year (ph) of projection in a positive way.
The second is you say precisely as several folks here have said it, if you are younger — everybody who is older and wants to be totally protected, fine, no change. So don’t let anybody lie to you, starting with the president. No change. But if you’re younger and you would like a personal account, you would control instead of the politicians.
And you know you’ll have more money at the end of your lifetime if you control it than the politicians.
Why shouldn’t you have the right to choose?
BLITZER: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
BLITZER: Senator Santorum, when it comes to Social Security, are you with Governor Romney or Governor Perry?
SANTORUM: Well, the question is who is with me? Because I’ve been out here talking about — you want to talk about courage to tell the truth, Governor? I was out in 1994 running against a Democratic incumbent in a campaign managed by James Carville, and I went out and talked about Social Security reform.
Why? Because I knew this day was coming. And I had the courage to go out and say Social Security is in trouble. And I told a group of young people at La Salle University that we needed to do something like raising the retirement age.
They ran that on TV for three weeks prior to the election, in the second oldest per capita state in the country. And I still won the election.
Why? Because the people of Pennsylvania wanted someone who had the courage to tell them the truth.
SANTORUM: And I had the courage to tell them the truth.
And what I’ve done since I was in the United States Senate is every year I proposed — I went, in fact, with Bill Clinton in 1997 on the first bipartisan Social Security town hall meeting, and I was the spokesperson, a Republican conservative from a blue state out there leading the charge on Social Security.
You folks want someone with courage? I’ve got a track record of courage and a track record of concrete proposals on how to fix this, among some of the things that have been discussed here tonight.
BLITZER: Senator, thank you.
Let’s go to another question. We have a question now from the audience.
Go ahead. Identify yourself.
DR. BRIDGET MELSON, PLEASANTON TEA PARTY: Hi. My name is Dr. Bridget Melson with the Pleasanton Tea Party. Good to be here.
My question for you is, what is your plan to balance the budget and get this spending under control so that my children’s share of the debt is erased without compromising my retired mother’s already tenuous financial future?
BLITZER: Good question. Let me ask Speaker Gingrich to respond, and I’ll sort of paraphrase it.
How do you do that? How do you protected seniors, balance the budget?
So much of the budget goes to defense and entitlements like Social Security, Medicare.
GINGRICH: But that’s just a Washington mythology. And anybody who knows anything about the federal government knows that there’s such an enormous volume of waste, that if you simply had a serious all-all effort to modernize the federal government, you would have hundreds of billions of dollars of savings falling off.
Let me say, I helped balance the budget for four straight years. This is not a theory. Rick and I were working together on this. This is not a theory. You voted for it. So we can balance the federal budget.
But let me start with — all of you should go to Strong America Now, which is a group that believes if you modernize the federal government, you save $500 billion a year. Now, check and see whether the super committee of 12 in their august power is willing to sit down with that group and actually learn how to be smart rather than cheap, and actually modernize the federal government.
One example, the federal government is such a bad manager of money, that somewhere between $70 billion and $120 billion a year in Medicare and Medicaid is paid to crooks. We wrote a book several years ago called “Stop Paying the Crooks.” I thought it was pretty obvious even for Washington . So I would start to balance the budget by stop paying the crooks, not by cheating honest Americans.
BLITZER: Senator Santorum, staying on the issue of spending, budget deficits, you voted for the prescription drug benefits for seniors when you were in the United States Senate costing about $1 trillion. If you had to do it over again, you wouldn’t vote for that, but if you were president of the United States , would you repeal prescription drug benefits for seniors under Medicare?
SANTORUM: I think we have to keep a prescription drug component, but we have to pay for it. In other words, we have to have a program that is funded.
Now, the reason that that program has actually worked well is it’s come in 40 percent under budget because it’s a program that uses private sector insurance, not government-run, one-size-fits-all health care. If we do that for the rest of Medicare, which is what the Ryan proposal suggests, and something that I proposed, again, years ago, had the courage to go out and lead on this issue, then we would be able to have a prescription drug program and we’d be able to have Medicare that you choose.
The idea that unless we have a government-run, one-size-fits-all Medicare program, that that’s throwing grandma off a cliff, is Washington think — is people who think in Washington this president, who believes that they know better than you how to run your life and how to purchase your health care. I trust you, I trust the American people. That is the greatness of our country.
BLITZER: Thank you, Senator.
Governor Perry, it was President Bush who pushed for prescription drug benefits for senior, not President Obama. It was President Bush who pushed for prescription drug benefits for seniors. The question to you:
If you were president — it’s not a difficult question — would you vote to eliminate, to repeal those prescription drug benefits for seniors under Medicare?
PERRY: No. It’s a $17 trillion hole that we have in our budget we’ve got to deal with. And I think that’s the issue of, how do you find the savings and still deliver the services?
For instance, in the state of Texas , we combined a substantial amount of our health and human services from 10 down to five agencies. We put an Office of Inspector General into place, and we saved over $5.3 billion, Newt, just by finding the waste and the fraud in Texas state government. I’m thinking there might be more waste and fraud in the federal government than even there is in the Texas government.