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St. Petersburg to host GOP debate

The Sept. 17 event will be broadcast by CNN and feature questions submitted online.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published July 19, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG -- A nationally televised presidential primary debate featuring a hip new format to let citizens ask the questions will be held in St. Petersburg's freshly renovated theater in the fall.

The two-hour event for Republican candidates, scheduled Sept. 17, will be broadcast live on CNN and moderated by Anderson Cooper. Organizers have chosen the Mahaffey Theater along St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront as the venue.

The choice of St. Petersburg underscores the growing importance of Florida in the 2008 election process and also illustrates the drawing power of Gov. Charlie Crist, who will bring the eyes of the nation to his hometown.

Crist and Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer are expected to make the announcement in St. Petersburg on Friday.

"It's going to be excellent," said Tony DiMatteo, chairman of the Pinellas GOP. "We knew it was going on, but we were told keep our mouths shut."

As part of an arrangement with the video-sharing Web site YouTube, questions for the debate will come from members of the online video community. This video format for the St. Petersburg debate will mirror a Democratic debate in South Carolina scheduled for Monday.

CNN's Cooper will present participants with 30-second video clips featuring questions filmed and uploaded to YouTube by users from across the country.

"I think in an odd way, this is the most democratic of all possible structures," CNN Washington bureau chief Dave Bohrman said when the South Carolina debate was announced last month.

"I mean everyone in the country at this moment has a chance of having a question asked of someone who very possibly could be the next president."

Debate submissions

YouTube is accepting submissions for both debates at Twenty to 30 questions will be chosen.

The campaigns of leading GOP contenders Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney were aware of the debate Wednesday but had not committed to attend. It's unlikely, however, that any major candidate would pass up two hours in front of a national audience.

For the venue, organizers picked the city-owned Mahaffey, the site of the 1996 vice presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp.

The 2,030-seat Mahaffey underwent a $20-million renovation in 2005 and hosts performances by the Florida Orchestra and traveling Broadway shows. Its lobby, enclosed by a three-story glass wall, opens onto Tampa Bay.

City officials declined to comment about the debate preparations Wednesday, and Mayor Rick Baker was on vacation in North Carolina and could not be reached.

DiMatteo said local Republicans plan to capitalize on the Monday night debate with events the weekend before.

It will also show that Florida is firmly a player in presidential politics, said state Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who led the push to make Florida's primary among the first in the nation.

"The road to the presidency now definitely goes through Florida," Rivera said.

Times staff writers Eric Deggans and Alex Leary and news researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at

[Last modified July 18, 2007, 23:40:17]

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