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Republican Primary: Candidates head to Tampa Bay for critical debate

3:45 PM, Jan 23, 2012   |    comments
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Republican presidential candidates, from left to right: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, take part in the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Tampa, Florida -- After three states with three separate winners, the Republican presidential nomination is a wide open race, raising the importance of Monday's debate at USF.

Just last week, it looked like Florida was a formality, with Mitt Romney set to win all three of the first election contests and roll into Florida with a ton of momentum.

But Newt Gingrich won this weekend in South Carolina, and an Iowa recount gave the win there to Rick Santorum, so each of the top three Republicans now has one win under his belt.

Plus, Gingrich is now riding his own wave of momentum.

There's a stat from CBS News' exit poll of voters in the South Carolina primary that is fascinating.

Mitt Romney's top argument for years now has been that he is the best candidate to beat President Obama in 2012.

But in South Carolina, of the voters who said beating the president was the most important quality for a candidate, more than half voted for Newt Gingrich.

So Monday night, Mitt Romney will stand on stage at USF and -- possibly for the first time -- his number one argument of electability may carry very little weight.

All four remaining Republican presidential candidates will be in the Tampa Bay area by Monday night.

Mitt Romney is set to hold a roundtable discussion on housing issues at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk at 8 a.m.

At 10 a.m., Rick Santorum will tour the PGT window factory in Venice.

At 2 o'clock, Newt Gingrich will take part in a welcome rally at The River of Tampa Bay Church -- that's near I-75 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in Hillsborough County.

And Ron Paul's expected to make an appearance at an after-party once the debate is over at the Copper Top Pub in Temple Terrace around 11 p.m.

The tickets for Monday's debate were all given out to the event's sponsors and aren't available to the public.

But USF Student Government will be hosting a watch party for students and the general public.

They have a big, enclosed tent set up at the western end of the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza lawn, close to the theatre where the debate is being held.

You can park for free anywhere in the lots on the north side of campus, starting at 5 p.m. The watch party's doors open at 7:30.

If you want to watch on TV, the debate starts at 9 o'clock on NBC.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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