WASHINGTON - There were eight candidates on a Florida stage on Monday night vying to become president of the United States, engaging in a fiery Republican debate — but some of the most stunning moments were provided by the Greek chorus of Tea Party adherents in the crowd.
The most surreal instance of the debate, a CNN/Tea Party Express collaboration, came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked a hypothetical question about whether a young man who had failed to buy health insurance should be provided state-financed medical care in the event of a serious accident.
"Are you saying that society should just let him die?" Blitzer asked congressman Ron Paul, the tough-talking libertarian who seemed fleetingly taken aback when at least two audience members boisterously shouted "yeah!" when he hesitated.
It was the second Republican debate in less than a week to feature such a show-stopper from the audience. Last week in California, Rick Perry got the most boisterous cheers of the night when he noted proudly that 234 people had been executed in Texas in the 11 years he's been governor.
"Given all the applause for death in the last two GOP debates, the Grim Reaper would be a very strong candidate," read a Tweet by ThinkProgress, the liberal political watchdog.
This is the audacious public face of the Tea Party, a movement reviled by a majority of Americans, according to a number of recent public opinion polls.
In a New York Times/CBS survey conducted last month, Tea Party members were less popular among those polled than atheists, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats, and 21 other groups.
But that isn't stopping Republican candidates from pandering to the Tea Party now that it's been emboldened by its victories in last fall's mid-term elections and believes it scored a game-changing Capitol Hill victory in this summer's toxic debt-ceiling debate.
On Monday night, the audience gave new meaning to Rodney Dangerfield's famous "tough crowd" line. They jeered any candidate, including frontrunner Perry, who took the slightest compassionate stance on illegal immigration, to name just one example.
Perry got booed for arguing against building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and again when he defended signing into law a bill that allows young illegal immigrants in Texas to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
"If you've been in the state of Texas for three years, and working toward citizenship, you pay in-state tuition," said Perry. "It doesn't matter what the sound of your last name is. That's the American way."
The goal is to allow immigrants to become "contributing members of our society, rather than be on the dole," he said as the jeers intensified.
And Paul, the darling of the night until he made a whopper of a misstep, found himself getting hissed for insisting that al-Qaida did not attack the American way of life on Sept. 11, 2001 _ instead, the terrorist organization was striking back at U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world.
"This idea that the whole Muslim world is attacking us because we're free and prosperous; that is just not true," Paul said in remarks that were likely ill-timed given the fresh wounds reopened by the 10th anniversary of 9-11 a day earlier.
The boos began to drown out his words as he pointed out that the late Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida had claimed the U.S. was attacked because it has military bases on holy lands in Saudi Arabia and due to the plight of the Palestinians in their conflict against the U.S.-backed Israelis.
"I didn't say that!" Paul exclaimed to the crowd as the jeers grew louder. "I'm trying to get you to understand what the motive was behind the bombing."
It was one of the night's most electrifying showdowns, brought about when former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum assailed Paul, an isolationist who's argued bitterly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for a message on his website on the anniversary of the terrible events.
"You said that it was our actions that brought about the actions of 9-11," Santorum said, accusing the Texan of echoing bin Laden. "Congressman Paul, that is irresponsible."
With a sputtering Paul thoroughly diminished in the dying moments of the debate, Minnesota congressman Michele Bachmann emerged the true star of the night. Despite plunging in the polls since Perry joined the race, the Tea Party darling was in front of an audience of cheering fans.
To say she dropped her gloves for a bare-knuckled brawl would be an understatement.
"Innocent little girls" became a repeated talking point as she maligned Perry for signing into a law a bill that required the vaccination of schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted virus.
Perry has since apologized for passing the HPV vaccination law -- the stuff of libertarian nightmares -- saying he made a bad mistake. But Bachmann didn't let it drop, even accusing him on Monday of profiting from the legislation.
"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just wrong," Bachmann said. "Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan."
Having delivered that body blow, she kept going, accusing him of pushing through the law as a favour to a major campaign contributor.
"There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate," Bachmann said. "The governor's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company."
A flustered Perry fought back.
"At the end of the day," he said, "this was about trying to stop a cancer. At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life."
He added: "I raised $30 million and if you're saying I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."