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On display at raucous Republican debate Monday night was the tea party itself

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Mike Carlson/AP

(Read caption) Members of the Tea Party watch during a Republican presidential debate Monday, in Tampa, Fla. Being compared to a sporting event, Monday's Tea Party Express debate was more raucous than previous Republican debates..

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Monday night’s GOP candidate debate, co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express, may have been political in its focus but it was “Sports Night” at heart – pure primetime storytelling.

Producers took a page from the playbook of its time-slot competition, “Monday Night Football” ­– from the raucous crowd warm-up act to the pop-singer-wobbly rendition of the national anthem and the booming shout-outs of each player’s, er, participant’s, moniker (the Libertarian! The Businessman! etc).

The subtext of this political soap: A tale about the tea party itself.

“What other splinter party has ever had its own debate on prime-time television?” says Richard Laermer, author of “2011: Trendspotting.” While he knocks the candidates for seeming unprepared for the rough-and-tumble of the questions, he says, “the tea party is telling its story” – that it is a force to be reckoned with – “loud and clear.”

“That CNN would partner with them” sent a broad message of legitimacy, adds Clyde Frazier, professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., saying, “clearly, it also sends a message of influence.”

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