Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Blog

The four remaining Republican presidential candidates will gather tonight in Mesa, Arizona for a high-stakes debate. While candidates and voters alike have been suffering from debate-fatigue, tonight’s debate could well be the final debate of the GOP presidential race. There are no other debates scheduled before Super Tuesday on March 6, and Romney’s campaign has not committed to a planned March 19 debate in Oregon. All eyes will be watching Romney and Santorum, who are virtually tied in both Michigan and Arizona since Santorum’s primary victories in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. The debate is sponsored by CNN and the Arizona Republican Party and will air at 8:00pm ET. Here are some stories to watch for:

  • The recent controversy over women’s preventative health care has catapulted social issues to the forefront of a presidential race that had hitherto been about the economy. This has corresponded with a surge in support for Santorum and a decline for Romney in national polls. Both candidates, however, are likely to try to steer the conversation away from divisive topics like contraception. Romney would like the focus of the debate to return to his strengths and away from his perceived weakness on social issues. Santorum’s campaign has complained lately that the media’s focus on his stances and statements on social issues is presenting a distorted, one-dimensional view of his candidacy. Thus, Santorum will likely try to use tonight’s debate to try to make himself seem more well-rounded and capable in areas like the economy and foreign policy.
  • The spotlight on Santorum will be harsh in tonight’s debate. Since his surge to the top of the polls a number of statements both past and present have raised eyebrows. In recent weeks he has claimed that President Obama practices a “phony theology” that’s not “based on the Bible.” He has argued that state government involvement in public schools is “anachronistic.” He has said that Obama’s stance on women’s preventative health care has put Christians on a path toward the guillotine. He has even gone so far to attack prenatal testing, claiming that it leads to more abortions and prompts us to “cull the ranks of the disabled.” In addition to all these recent comments, a 2008 speech has been dug up in which Santorum gives dire warnings about Satan. Thus, Santorum has a plethora of comments he will likely be asked to address in tonight’s debate. His tactic on many such issues is to explain the difference between his personal views and political stances. For example, he doesn’t like birth control, or prenatal testing, but he would do nothing as president to restrict their availability. Explaining these nuances in 30-second debate responses for such a laundry list of questionable statements is likely to be a difficult task.
  • Romney came out swinging against Gingrich when he fell behind the former speaker in the polls, and will likely do so against Santorum who has overtaken him in his home state of Michigan. Romney will likely try to label Santorum as an “insider,” hitting him on earmarks and his lucrative ties to the health care industry. This would be consistent with the line of attack his Super PAC has taken in their onslaught of negative ads airing in Michigan, which focus on Santorum’s record on earmarks and spending.
  • Gingrich and Paul will likely have to fight for time and attention in tonight’s debate. With Romney and Santorum slugging it out, it will be interesting to see whether they choose to enter the fray with attacks of their own, or whether they simply hope the two frontrunners wound each other. The latter tactic might make more sense if there were more debates left, but since this may be one of the last debates, the odds are in favor of Gingrich and Paul taking just as many shots as the frontrunners.

Prior to the debate be sure to check out AAI’s candidate profiles for a detailed breakdown of the remaining candidates’ stances on major issues. 

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