JUDY WOODRUFF: The 20th and perhaps final Republican presidential debate takes place tonight in Mesa, Arizona. The two leading contenders for the GOP nomination were out campaigning ahead of this evening’s encounter.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke this morning in Chandler, where he called for a 20 percent cut in income tax rates. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, addressed a Tea Party rally in Tucson.
And our Gwen Ifill is in Phoenix, where she has been tracking the developments.
So, we understand a lot of Arizona Republicans have already voted. What does this race look like right now?
GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s very interesting.
The secretary of state here has said that about 178,000 people have already voted. They got their ballots some weeks ago, starting Feb. 2. And if, indeed, they voted before this last Santorum string of victories last week, the conventional wisdom has it that Mitt Romney would have benefited from this. He’s been strong in all the polls in Arizona.
There has been some closing with Rick Santorum in the last week or so. But the truth is that Rick Santorum has absolutely no organization that anybody can identify here in Arizona. He came and he campaigned here yesterday. Went to a couple of his events, some of which, it seemed the attendees were setting up the chairs and setting up the event themselves, whereas Mitt Romney has a very organized — a very organized campaign at work here.
And that often makes a difference when people are not deciding at the last minute, which is, of course, the definition of an early voter.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen, what about advertising? What are the messages that are being either thrown back and forth or that the voters are getting a chance to hear?
GWEN IFILL: Well, in a moment, you’re going to hear that, in Michigan, they can’t turn on the television without seeing advertising. That is not true here in Arizona.
There is exactly one ad that I have seen that appears with any kind of regularity on local television, and it’s a Romney super PAC ad, not even the Romney campaign itself. And it’s attacking Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum, as far as the naked eye can tell, hasn’t been on the air here at all.
There hasn’t been that undercurrent of radio advertising and negativity, not at least on the air. I think that Mitt Romney is outspending Rick Santorum by more than 10 times in terms of that kind of — that kind of advertising. So this is not that kind of campaign. So much is being condensed, not only with what’s happening in this last week with these last-minute appearances by these candidates, but also this debate tonight in Mesa.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about that debate, Gwen? It’s been, what, four weeks almost since the last Republican debate. What are the expectations at this point? What do people think is riding on this?
GWEN IFILL: Oh, and, Judy, admit it, you have been missing these debates, haven’t you?
JUDY WOODRUFF: I have.
GWEN IFILL: You have just been waking up at night kind of shaking, thinking, why aren’t they on my television set?
Well, they’re going to be there tonight. And they’re — and it’s going to be the four men on the stage, not only Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the center seats, but also Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, neither of whom is doing as well in Arizona.
But, as you know, this kind of debate tonight is not going to be just for the folks of Arizona. It is going to be not only — is going to be broadcast nationally. So these candidates are really trying to aim beyond this state. They’re trying to change those last-minute minds in Michigan, but also in all those Super Tuesday states still to come.
So we’re going to watch how they respond. It’s really interesting to me that in Arizona, where, for instance, border security and immigration is such a big issue, how little you hear the candidates talking about it. Rick Santorum managed to go through two events yesterday barely mentioning it, even though he did today in Tucson.
But Mitt Romney gave a speech today in which he spent the entire time attacking the president’s tax reduction plan and promoting his own, but not even — but only not talking about local issues, without even talking about the people he’s running against, Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney — or Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul.
So they are all shooting above the heads in some respects of the voters here, hoping to get broader attention where it’s going to count as those delegates begin to pile up.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Gwen, how much interest are Republican voters paying there, given the — as you said, the heavy focus on Michigan?
GWEN IFILL: Well, they’re very flattered in Arizona to finally have any kind of attention paid here, because, as you know, they moved their primary around on the calendar, trying to get more attention.
And this year, they got that attention, partly because of their governor, who, of course, famously shook her finger in the president’s face and railed against the idea of federal intervention here in Arizona, and partly because of this new shift in discussion about conservative social issues.
And there is such a socially conservative undercurrent here — a lot of Mormons in Arizona and a lot of Christians and homeschoolers who are drawn to this debate in a way that they maybe had not been before. So there’s going to be a lot of attention paid.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Our own Gwen Ifill, thanks very much.
And for more on how the Michigan primary is shaping up, we’re joined from Ann Arbor by Micheline Maynard — she’s senior editor of Changing Gears, a public media project about the industrial Midwest — and, from East Lansing, by Bill Ballenger. He’s editor of the “Inside Michigan Politics” newsletter.
It’s good to have you both back with us again.
Micki Maynard, to you first.
You have watched this state of Michigan for so long. How does the race look to you right now?
MICHELINE MAYNARD, Changing Gears: Well, it looks like Romney is getting closer.
A couple of weeks ago, a week or so ago, two polls came out showing Rick Santorum was ahead. And I think it sent shockwaves through the Romney campaign. Since then, we have had a deluge of Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney’s memories of growing up in Michigan, Mitt Romney ads in which he’s riding a car in Michigan. And I think he’s trying to hammer home the point that he’s from here and he wants to win this state.
So it looks like he’s getting ever so much closer to hanging on to the lead here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Ballenger, if Romney is coming back into the lead, how do you explain it? What’s — what can he owe — what does he owe that to?
BILL BALLENGER, “Inside Michigan Politics”: He had some very positive ads starting out last week that Micki just mentioned.
He also has some negative ads against Rick Santorum. He has not pulled substantially into the lead here. It’s virtually a tie. I mean, there have been a couple of polls in the last three days that have shown Mitt Romney ahead by two points, with the rest undecided pretty much and within the margin of error. Well, that’s a heck of a lot better than it was a week ago, but he’s not out of the woods yet.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Ballenger, staying with you, tell us, again, who are the Republican voters of Michigan? Where do they live? What do they care about? Who are they?
BILL BALLENGER: Well, half the population, roughly, in Michigan lives in the metro Detroit area in the three big southeastern counties, Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb, a few fringe counties down there.
And the rest of the population is out-state spread over 83 counties, Western Michigan, around Grand Rapids, Ottawa County, very heavily conservative, Christian, a lot of fundamentalists voters, maybe Tea Party activists there. That is a kind of treasure trove of votes for somebody like Rick Santorum, who I think looks at metro Detroit and knows that Mitt Romney has a slight advantage there, maybe a big advantage, because that’s where the auto industry is.
That’s where Mitt Romney is from. His father was president of American Motors. That’s where Mitt Romney grew up. That’s where his name, Romney, is best known. So Rick Santorum has got to win this race out-state and in West Michigan.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that voter landscape, Micki Maynard, what is the economy looking like? How are voters, these Republican voters feeling right now?
MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, the state motto of Michigan translates as, if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.
And I have been joking lately that the state motto should be, it’s better than it was. The economy has settled down. We don’t have the high double-digit unemployment numbers that we did at the depths of the recession, say in 2009. In fact, the unemployment number is actually right around where the national number is, maybe a little better.
But one of the reasons for that is so many people have left the state in search of jobs. The auto industry is profitable again, and that looks really, really good in the headlines. There is hiring going on. But those jobs that are coming back are paying a lot less, and the benefits are a lot less generous than the jobs that went away.
So things are calming down. But there’s a long, long way for the state to go before it’s back to where it was in 2008, and it may never get back to the boom days before that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Ballenger, both of you now have mentioned the auto industry. It is a huge factor in the state.
The fact — speaking of that, the fact that both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were opposed to the federal bailout of the auto industry, how is that playing out in this contest?
BILL BALLENGER: Fascinating question, Judy.
You’re absolutely right. An ad has just come out from a Santorum super PAC — now, there’s something you haven’t heard of before now — basically castigating Mitt Romney for his position against the auto bailout by the Obama administration — a little strange, since Rick Santorum has exactly the same position.
So I don’t know how Rick Santorum, who’s not supposedly connected with his super PAC, is going to explain that if it comes up in the debate tonight. But that’s fascinating.
The other thing I would say is, a poll just came out last night showing that Barack Obama is way ahead of Mitt Romney in Michigan now, by 18 points. That is over double the lead he’s ever had in a poll over Mitt Romney dating back three years. A year ago, Mitt Romney led Barack Obama in the polls here in Michigan.
And most people think that’s because of all the negative publicity that has come out of Mitt Romney’s and Rick Santorum’s opposition to the federal bailout. That is a bailout that was popular among Democrats and independents. I don’t think it’s going to be much of a factor among Republican voters in the Tuesday, Feb. 28, primary.
But in a general election, if Mitt Romney is the nominee, he’s got a problem on his hands because of that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you.
And just to wrap up, Micki Maynard, to what extent do you think this auto bailout issue is or isn’t a factor for these Republican voters next week?
MICHELINE MAYNARD: I think it’s a factor for some of the Republicans who are in, say, management at the car companies, because, while I think Republicans philosophically in general opposed the bailout, Republicans in Michigan probably supported the bailout because it was their jobs that were at stake.
And to sort of follow up on one thing that Bill said, Mitt Romney went very public in favor of letting Detroit go bankrupt. Rick Santorum might have said the same thing in Pennsylvania, but nobody in Michigan heard that. So I think that is why the bailout is bouncing on Romney much more than Santorum.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we thank you, both, Micheline Maynard, Bill Ballenger. Thanks.