At Arizona Debate, Santorum to Get His Turn in Spotlight

Wednesday, 22 Feb 2012 06:55 AM

By Newsmax Wires

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After months on the sidelines, Rick Santorum finally gets his chance at center stage in a debate of Republican candidates on Wednesday night in a forum where he is likely to become the focus of attacks from his rivals.

And it’s a make-or-break debate for Mitt Romney, too, with polls showing the presumed front-runner’s lead in the run-up to the Michigan primary on Tuesday in serious jeopardy, along with his edge in Arizona’s primary, also on Tuesday.

Santorum is surging in opinion polls and is likely to face tough questions over some of his strong social conservative views when he, Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul gather for CNN’s debate at 8 p.m. in Phoenix. It is the most important debate for Santorum, who is trying to position himself as a true front-runner, not a fringe conservative and not the “anyone-but-Romney” candidate.

A strong performance by Santorum, and/or a weak one by Romney, could lead to an upset in Michigan and potentially Arizona – and the nomination could slip from Romney’s grasp.

Tonight’s debate is the last great opportunity for all the candidates, especially Romney and Santorum, to woo the remaining voters their way before the Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan and the March 6 Super Tuesday contests. There are no other debates before March 19 in Oregon, and Romney’s camp has not committed to participate.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, suddenly finding himself chasing Santorum after seemingly running as the inevitable nominee, needs a breakthrough performance to halt the former Pennsylvanian senator's surge and restore luster to his own campaign.

A Michigan loss would represent a major embarrassment for Romney, given that he considers it his “home” state. But a loss in Arizona would be a disaster, political watchers say. He managed to make a good case that the Feb. 7 caucus losses were an anomaly, largely attributed to low turnout in states that Romney didn’t really try to win. But losing two bigger, high-turnout primaries in Michigan and Arizona (with a high Mormon population) could put his electability in doubt.

If Romney then happened to lose the Washington caucuses on March 3, where polling has shown the race to be somewhat competitive, it becomes a sixth loss in seven contests before Super Tuesday. The race at that point could be Santorum’s to lose.

For his part, Santorum needs to build on his momentum going into the Arizona and Michigan primaries.

"For Santorum, there are a lot of expectations," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "Now that he has reached the superstar status, he has to perform very well. Any stumble by Santorum will be magnified because of his front-runner status. He's going to have to face these attacks head-on."

Santorum leads Romney in Michigan opinion polls and is catching up in Arizona, where a Time/CNN poll on Tuesday found Romney ahead by just 36 percent to 32 percent.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday morning shows Santorum ahead nationally by 9 points. Several other polls show Romney with a weakening lead in Arizona; others show both men in a dead heat.

But tonight, expect fireworks. Watch for moderator John King to bring up hot-button topics to Arizona and Michigan voters — issues such as immigration and the economy. And expect Santorum to be grilled on other potentially explosive topics such as the Obama birth-control mandate, abortion, faith, and healthcare.

Former private-equity executive Romney is likely to attack Santorum over approving spending bills during his years in the Senate until he was voted out in 2006.

Santorum was on the defensive in Arizona on Wednesday about his time in Congress.

"We went there and we exposed scandal after scandal — bipartisan scandal, bipartisan scandals where Republicans and Democrats were doing things to undermine the credibility of Washington, D.C.," he said.

Meanwhile former House Speaker Gingrich, himself a former front-runner who has a strong record in debates, has dropped in polls since Romney surprisingly got the better of him in two televised encounters in Florida last month.

The Republican race has been the most chaotic in decades as many conservatives have sought to find someone other than Romney, who made his name in politics in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, as their candidate.

Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann all had their time in the limelight as the Romney alternatives, only to tumble away. Twenty previous debates have been crucial in determining who stays on top and who drops.

But now it is Santorum's turn.

In recent days, his views against birth control and in favor of home schooling over public schools have drawn huge media attention. He has questioned Obama's theological worldview and suggested that the president's healthcare law encouraged abortion by requiring insurers to cover various prenatal tests used to identify abnormalities.

The back-and-forth on social issues has detracted from Republican attempts to keep the U.S. economy as the central focus of the campaign and provided the Democrats ammunition to pronounce the Republican field as out of step with mainstream Americans.

On Wednesday, Romney called for 20 percent across-the-board cuts in personal income tax rates as part of a program to help the economy grow. Under the proposal, the top tax rate would drop from 35 percent to 28 percent, and some popular breaks would be scaled back for upper-income taxpayers, although aides provided scant details.

Romney said he plans to pay for the tax cuts by limiting some of the popular deductions and exemptions for charitable giving, savings, mortgage interest and other areas. Campaign officials would not explain what deductions and exemptions Romney would limit or who would be affected, though they said the changes will be targeted at the wealthiest households.

Romney's struggle has given voice to some in the Republican establishment who may want to draft a latecomer to the 2012 race out of concern that nominating Santorum would make Obama's re-election far easier.

The pressure is on Romney to raise questions about Santorum's electability. Santorum has Romney on the run in Michigan, where Romney was born and his father was governor, and a loss there could be devastating.

"The outcome of the debate will be an indicator of whether or not the Republican establishment will be closer to hitting the panic button," Bonjean said.

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