MANATEE -- The uniquely strange presidential race offered a triple helping of political theater Thursday involving a pundit panel at State College of Florida followed by the televised national GOP debate and the competing televised "Inside Trump" fundraiser for veterans.
Naturally, Donald Trump was prominently involved in the discussion at all three events. His continued mesmerization of GOP voters has confounded political pundits and party politicians throughout the past year.
"I never thought (Trump's) demagoguery would play so well," said New College professor Frank Alcock at SCF. "It's a textbook definition of playing on fears."
The State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota panel discussion was timed to occur days before the official start to the presidential primary and caucus season Monday in Iowa.
The panel featured:
Alcock, New College associate professor of political science and environmental studies and political media commentator;
Rosalie Shaffer, president of the League of Women Voters of Manatee County, who
has organized many political forums; and
Michael Rogers, assistant professor of comparative politics and American government at SCF and political media commentator.
This is Trump's GOP nomination to lose after the Summer of Trump, Alcock said. Then he admitted he was more unsure of this race than any in recent memory.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Alcock admitted. "Anything could happen."
"It's become a reality show," Shaffer said.
Rogers said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could stop Trump's drive to the nomination with a momentum-busting win in the Iowa caucus.
"A Cruz win in Iowa would stop the Trump phenomenon in its tracks," he said.
Florida will once again play an important role in determining presidential candidates with its unique winner-take-all primary. The Sunshine State's March 15 primary comes after more than two dozen states have doled out Republican and Democratic delegates to the national party conventions. Most primaries apportion delegates in proportion to votes received.
The SCF pundits all agreed Hillary Clinton would withstand surging challenger Bernie Sanders but he, too, has provided a surprising jolt of uncertainty to a race many had already ceded to the former secretary of state.
"Sanders has a real shot," Alcott said. "But Hillary's margin with minority voters is huge."
Shaffer said a lot of people really like Sanders and his policies appeal to voters fed up with Big Business and gridlocked Congress.
"He may take some primaries," Shaffer said.
The Bradenton Herald and SCF, in partnership with Manatee Educational Television, staged the public forum focused on the 2016 election in front of a live crowd of about three dozen in the first Community Conversation of 2016.
SCF President Carol Probstfeld and Herald Editorial Page Editor Chris Wille moderated the 90-minute discussion.
METV taped the event for rebroadcast and will post the video on Bradenton.com and METV's YouTube channel.
Other issues discussed:
Florida's politically tainted process of drawing new congressional and state Senate districts drew lawsuits and court action over violations of the Fair Districts amendments approved by voters in 2010. The congressional boundaries were settled by a recent state Supreme Court decision five years after lawmakers began the process.
State Senate maps drawn by Reapportionment Committee chairman state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. All Senate seats will be up for election in 2016 under a new map so districts are expected to become more competitive between the political parties.
Floridians will once again vote on a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana as the forces behind the failed 2014 initiative used a rewritten ballot issue to addresses the language opponents cited as opening the door to drug abuse. The pro-medical marijuana organization United for Care has collected enough validated signatures to make the ballot.