The Republican candidates debate yet again on Wednesday night, this time in Mesa, Ariz. But the desert showdown less than a week before Tuesday's Arizona primary will be all about Michigan, which votes the same day.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the scion of Michigan royalty—his father, George, was the state’s governor and headed the now defunct American Motors Corporation. If Romney can’t win back home, it will be a huge blow to his presidential ambitions. A loss there won’t necessarily end his campaign, but it would get to the very question of Romney’s electability.
Will the debate itself determine the winner of the primary? Probably not. But these contests really do matter. After some 20 debates during the presidential primaries, one might think that they’re of less importance or that the candidates have said all they can. But the debates have proven to be a remarkably resilient and important format. Debates are what did in the great conservative hope, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose somnolent performance in the debates ended his candidacy virtually before it began. Conversely, Newt Gingrich’s many strong performances resurrected his candidacy.
The Arizona debate will present opportunities and perils for former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. He wants to knock Romney off in Michigan, but he’ll face questions about a slew of controversial statements, including his complaint that prenatal tests lead to more abortions. "The bottom line is that a lot of prenatal tests are done to identify deformities in utero and the customary procedure is to encourage abortions," Santorum said on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday. Santorum quickly qualified his remarks by adding that he was talking specifically about some prenatal testing, like amniocentesis, and said he does not have a problem with prenatal care in general.
In an action-packed weekend, Santorum also chided President Obama on his “theology,” only to later explain that he had no doubts about the president’s faith, only his policies. Such moments might doom a general-election bid, but no one can be sure how they will play with the Republican faithful.
What’s clear is that Romney and his supporters, with their mammoth super PACs, have decided not to portray Santorum as a religious extremist. They have been pummeling him instead as a free-spending, Washington insider.
Santorum and Romney appear virtually tied in Michigan, according to a slew of polls. Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are way down the food chain, battling for third place.
So what happens at the debate? Each side will go into battle trying to tear the others down and using their opponents as a foil. Whereas Gingrich once lavished praise on Santorum, expect the former House speaker to fire his guns at the Pennsylvanian so that he can reclaim the mantle of being the true conservative in the race. Santorum will continue to pound Romney as he has been—decrying the health care plan that Romney enacted in Massachusetts as the model for Obama’s health care plan. And he’ll also chip at Romney’s conservative credentials on social issues.
Romney is sure to try and use Gingrich as a foil on immigration. The Georgian has taken a softer line on illegal immigration than Romney, and so poking at Gingrich will allow Romney to get to the right on at least one issue.
Polls show a tight race in Arizona. But immigration is a powerful issue there that should help Romney pull out a victory—with an assist from the state’s substantial Mormon population. Arizona is less than 6 percent Mormon, but that’s just a hair behind Nevada, where Romney coasted to victory earlier this winter and where the final Mormon percentage of the GOP electorate was over 20 percent.
It’s a safe bet that moderator John King won't ask Gingrich about his marriages. The issue has not been broached since Gingrich exploded in an earlier CNN debate, when King brought up a contention from Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, that the former speaker asked for an "open marriage." Gingrich has now faded in the polls, and the question that was once the talk of debates has evaporated.
It’s a metaphor for the year. What seems crucial, stunning in one debate is entirely forgotten by the next.