(Reuters) - Eight Republican presidential hopefuls will meet on Monday in a debate co-sponsored by CNN and the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, which helped elect dozens of Republicans to Congress in 2010.
Here are four keys to the debate among candidates vying to become the Republican presidential nominee to run against Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
Social Security has taken center stage in the Republican race since Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the contest and called the government retirement program a “Ponzi scheme.”
Both Democrats and rival Republicans have attacked Perry on the issue, especially former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has been overtaken by Perry in the polls.
Monday’s debate will be in Florida, home to a large population of retirees deeply concerned about Social Security. Their support could be crucial to winning the Republican nomination, and the general election.
Voters, and Perry’s rivals, will be watching closely to see how the front-runner plays it. His comments on Monday could indicate whether, as president, he would try to ensure Social Security is financially sustainable or seek to unwind it. If he is seen to back off his earlier position his opponents would feel free to label him a “flip-flopper.”
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a fiscal, social and religious conservative, slipped from the top tier of Republican contenders after Perry entered the race and supplanted her as a Tea Party favorite.
Monday’s debate, hosted by a Tea Party group, could give her a window to regain some momentum. But it also might be her last chance, as strategists say Bachmann would have a hard time regaining a lead if she fails to perform well tonight.
A CNN/ORC International Poll released on Monday showed Bachmann supported by only 4 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, down from 10 percent in the last CNN poll.
Bachmann trailed former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s 15 percent, and Palin has not even entered the nomination race. She also lagged Representative Ron Paul of Texas, businessman Herman Cain and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Monday’s debate will be the first since Obama went to Congress with a jobs plan, part of a strategy aimed at boosting the U.S. economy in time to help his reelection chances.
With unemployment at 9.1 percent, joblessness remains the issue that matters most to voters, according to polls.
Perry and Romney had several sharp exchanges about job creation during last week’s Republican debate in California and both will try to score points on the issue Monday.
But they, and the other candidates, will be balancing their need to appear proactive on jobs with a desire to appeal to the important Republican Tea Party bloc, which wants smaller government and lower spending.
Monday’s debate, co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express group, will include questions from followers of the fiscally conservative movement, both on the scene and remotely.
That means the candidates could face questions on issues such as strict interpretations of the U.S. Constitution and views of the Federal Reserve.
Perry, a Tea Party favorite, raised eyebrows among some establishment Republicans just after getting into the nomination race with comments that seemed to threaten Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
With the debate televised to a national audience, Democrats will be poised to jump on any answers from the Republicans that they can interpret as being out of the mainstream.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; editing by Jackie Frank