GWEN IFILL: And to the presidential campaign. Tensions are running high as Republican candidates prepare for voters to head to the polls in two more primaries tomorrow.
Kwame Holman has our report.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Republican candidates had packed scheduled one day ahead of the Michigan and Arizona primaries. Mitt Romney's first of three rallies was in Rockford, Mich., a state where his father once was governor.
MITT ROMNEY (R): We're going to stop some of this excessive spending and finally cut federal programs, so we can balance our budget. I'm also going to take programs and send a lot of them that we need back to the states, because I believe the states can do a better job running some programs than the federal government.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Detroit, Texas Congressman Ron Paul also focused on spending and debt.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: It used to be we thought about distant generations. Oh, you're passing this debt off to our kids and our grandchildren. Let me tell you, the mess that we're in now is today. It's us.
KWAME HOLMAN: And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum played up his economic reform plan at a local chamber of commerce just west of Detroit.
RICK SANTORUM (R): We can do things different. And we can be successful at doing it. But our plan is bold. It doesn't just, you know, take a existing tax code and play around with it in 59 or 69 or 89 different tweaks. What we do is fundamentally wholesale change.
KWAME HOLMAN: Santorum also called for religion to play a wider role in public policy. Sunday on ABC, he defended that view, saying he almost threw up when he read John F. Kennedy's 1960 statement that separation of church and state should be absolute.
RICK SANTORUM: Well, absolutely. To say that people of faith have no role in the public square, you bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come in the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up.
KWAME HOLMAN: The fourth Republican in contention, Newt Gingrich, was leaving frontrunners Romney and Santorum to fight for Michigan and Arizona while he looked to Super Tuesday states that vote March 6.
Gwen Ifill spent last week in Arizona sounding out voters there.
GWEN IFILL: Diane Burnett has her political priorities in order. As a member of the Arizona Tea Party, she is certain of one thing. She wants to defeat President Obama.
DIANE BURNETT, Arizona Tea Party Patriots: Just sign up right here, and then I'm going to email you and I will contact you directly and give you all the information.
GWEN IFILL: So, Burnett switched from independent to Republican and set out to find a candidate she could support.
DIANE BURNETT: The immigration is very important to us here. I have friends who live on the border who won't go out in their backyard without a gun. Americans shouldn't live that way.
GWEN IFILL: Last week, her search took her to a GOP luncheon in Phoenix where former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the featured speaker.
DIANE BURNETT: The scary part is, is to falling into that, who's electable, you know, instead of who you really want. I think that's what people are trying to decide, which way do I go? Who do I think can get elected and who do I really support?
RICK SANTORUM: This election is about foundational things.
GWEN IFILL: Santorum went over big.
RICK SANTORUM: Whether we're going to have the government under Obamacare and a whole host of other things, cap and trade that he has put forward, Dodd-Frank, as to what loan you're going to get, what light switch you can turn on, what light bulb, what car you're going to drive. Will you be the generation that succumbs to the siren song that government can do better for you than you can do for yourself?
GWEN IFILL: By the time the luncheon ended, an informal party straw poll went to Santorum.
And Diane Burnett had made up her mind, too.
DIANE BURNETT: I was very impressed that he spoke from the heart, no Teleprompters. That was impressive. So, yeah, I think I'm going to give him, Santorum, my vote.
GWEN IFILL: Burnett, who also liked Herman Cain and wishes Sarah Palin had run, is part of the biggest moving target in this year's primary race: Republicans who can't or won't warm to Mitt Romney.
MITT ROMNEY: How are you?
According to the latest statewide poll, Romney is comfortably ahead in Arizona, but for him, there have been no easy wins.
The big issues here, border security, high unemployment, home foreclosures, have made this state fertile breeding ground for fiscal conservatives. But social issues like religion, abortion and gun ownership have resonated just as strongly.
ANN ROMNEY, Wife of Mitt Romney: We've been married 42 years now.
GWEN IFILL: Romney has gone out of his way to erase what polls show as his weakness with the party's most conservative voters.
MITT ROMNEY: Are we going to become like a European social welfare state with high unemployment, high burdens, high debt, low job growth? Or are we going to restore the kind of values that the nation was founded upon?
I'm going to take the federal spending budget, look line by line. And I'm going to ask this question. Can we afford this program? And if we can't afford it, if we can't pay for it out of current revenues, I'll ask this question. Is this program so essential, it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Romney's presumed frontrunner status has been challenged in contest after contest this primary season, as the former Massachusetts governor and his supporters have spent tens of millions of dollars confronting one surging candidate after another.
BRUCE MERRILL, Arizona State University: You have to ask yourself, what electorate? If you look at all registered voters, it's a pretty moderate electorate. But if you look at the voters that go to the polls on Election Day, they tend to be pretty right-wing.
GWEN IFILL: Pollster Bruce Merrill says the volatility has been driven by a committed minority of conservative voters.
BRUCE MERRILL: My research shows that about 20 percent of the people in Arizona are evangelical, Tea Party, way right. Another 20 percent of Republicans say they support basically what is happening with the Tea Party.
So, somewhere around half of the people in Arizona are at least sympathetic. Really, the bigger picture, what's happened from day one, the conservatives don't like Romney.
GWEN IFILL: In last week's Arizona debate, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul said they too will make promises to conservative-based voters, but they'll keep them.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): You have to have somebody who can actually get it done in Washington, not just describe it on the campaign trail.
RON PAUL: I find it really fascinating that, when people are running for office, they're really fiscally conservative. When they're in office, they do something different. And then, when they explain themselves they say, oh, I want to repeal that.
GWEN IFILL: Savannah Rogers, a homeschooling mother of five, likes Santorum's emphasis on social, rather than economic issues.
SAVANNAH ROGERS, mother: The social issue is pretty foundational. I think that, like, economy is going to change, going to come, going to go, going to be good, going to be bad. I don't really believe that one person can control that, necessarily.
I think that, foundationally, where he stands with the social issues is kind of like underlying all of his decisions, whether they're financial or foreign or any of those other issues.
GWEN IFILL: Romney voters, like Bethany Mestler, who came to see him speak at a Christian academy here, reached a different conclusion.
BETHANY MESTLER, Romney supporter: When it comes to a politician, you're not going to find someone who is going to be side by side with you in every value. And at the same time, I think the issues that will come up when he's actually governing are going to be more related to the economy and to jobs and unemployment, rather than, say, a social issue that may be more important to me on a side issue.
But, like I said with the economy, it's -- when you're paying $5 a gallon for gas and your dad lost his job, those things are more important.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. John McCain has endorsed Romney, but some of the state's most well-known conservative names have pointedly refused to take sides.
Controversial law and order Sheriff Joe Arpaio met with Santorum last week, but hedged his bets.
JOE ARPAIO, Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff: Well, I like a fighter. I mean, what do you think I am? I mean, I ran 20 years ago. Nobody knew me. And I keep fighting. But I do what I feel is right. He does too.
GWEN IFILL: Arpaio has grown disenchanted with Romney.
JOE ARPAIO: Romney, I was his campaign guy four years ago. He seems to have forgot my number.
GWEN IFILL: Former state Sen. Russell Pearce, the author of SB-1070, the state's strict anti-immigration legislation, won't endorse either.
RUSSELL PEARCE (R): I think because they all have good things. We never had a perfect candidate. You can never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And if you're looking for a perfect guy, we will never get there.
GWEN IFILL: Gov. Jan Brewer, who famously confronted President Obama at an Arizona airport, was still undecided as late as last week.
GOV. JAN BREWER (R), Arizona: It has been a very interesting presidential campaign, somebody up on top and then somebody on the bottom and then vice versa.
GWEN IFILL: Do you honestly believe any of these four candidates on the stage can beat Barack Obama in the fall?
GOV. JAN BREWER: I didn't say that. I said that I believe that they're all very talented. I think that they surely could serve us probably a lot better than President Obama has.
GWEN IFILL: But yesterday on "Meet the Press," she threw her support to Romney.
GOV. JAN BREWER: I think that things will settle down. And I think that after Super Tuesday, we'll have our candidate.
GWEN IFILL: Romney supporters like Arizona State Senator Michele Reagan worry that extended infighting will hurt Republicans in the long run.
MICHELE REAGAN (R): Rick Santorum, to me, is -- and I'm not a political analyst -- but it just seems like he's the last man standing that isn't a Romney.
MICHELE REAGAN: So they have kind of gone through everyone else. I wish that the party would, my party would gather together around one person and be gung-ho, whoever that person is, and -- because the real prize is November. It's not these primaries.
GWEN IFILL: But Congressman Trent Franks, who supports Gingrich, believes the ongoing uncertainty is revealing.
REP. TRENT FRANKS (R), Arizona: There's a search for, you know, a better alternative than Mr. Romney, because the core conservative elements that make up this party, which are really the heart of the party, oftentimes hear an equivocation or sort of a subliminal ambiguity in what Mr. Romney says. And, many times, it seems like, when asked a direct question, Mr. Romney is a master at answering in a completely different way.
GWEN IFILL: State Party Chairman Tom Morrissey is unconcerned about the anybody-but-Romney fight.
TOM MORRISSEY, Arizona GOP chairman: It's unbelievable. I have never seen anything -- I think it's great. I really think it's great. And, you know, some of my colleagues think that it's not. But it is, because I look back at 2008, and I remember the war that went on between President Obama and Hillary Clinton. And that went into June. And when that was done, it made President Obama a stronger candidate going into the election.
GWEN IFILL: So, as all four candidates ramp up for tomorrow's voting and for primaries and caucuses in 10 states on March 6, each is hoping that what doesn't eliminate him now will make him stronger in the fall.
No matter what voters decide tomorrow, all four candidates say they are preparing for a series of contests that could last until June.
For more on what that scenario means for the eventual nominee and for the incumbent president, we turn to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper.
So, 24 hours from now, how critical, Sue, Susan, is tomorrow night, is the outcome?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: It is everything.
We're pretty sure Gov. Romney will win Arizona, but whether or not he wins Michigan is in some doubt. In the RealClearPolitics averaging of state polls, he's up 1.5 points, which is not a safe margin.
GWEN IFILL: Wow.
SUSAN PAGE: If he loses. . .
GWEN IFILL: That's not a margin at all.
SUSAN PAGE: That's right.
If he loses in Michigan, all bets are off. We're going to have the kind of race that we would hope to cover -- we would spend our lives as political reporters hoping to cover. If he wins in Michigan, even if it's not a big win, a narrow win, it seems to me he gets back on track for the nomination.
GWEN IFILL: Stu, you heard what those folks in Arizona were saying about looking around for somebody else. What is driving that? This is not the only state where we have heard that.
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, I think there is dissatisfaction with the field. We've seen the survey data shows that people wish somebody else were in the race.
There's been a lack of enthusiasm in many of these contests, caucuses and primaries. I think people want to be able to get excited about a single candidate. Republicans understand their party is divided. And that is a terrible situation for a party to be in.
The country looks for -- to parties for leadership and strength and ideas and vision. And when you have candidates attacking one another in a party, supporters attacking one another, it gives a very sour taste, I think, to many voters. And even the partisans realize that.
GWEN IFILL: And in a state like Michigan, Democrats can cross and vote the other way. And there's some mischief going on, isn't there, Susan?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, there's some talks that Democrats will move over. They can declare themselves Republicans just for the moment, vote in that primary.
And some Democratic leaders have said, go vote for Santorum, on the theory that that scrambles the Republican race for a while longer. I think sometimes these opportunities for mischief are overstated. I don't know where I can think of a case where it really made a big difference.
On the other hand, if you have a very close race, you know, every vote could matter.
GWEN IFILL: Which is what this is.
So if this is going on longer than Mitt Romney would have liked, is he being strengthened and tested in some way, or is he being weakened because he's being forced to spend all of his money in a primary race?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, the Republican optimists would say, yes, he's being tested and steeled, and that he will know now the kinds of attacks he's going to get in the fall from the Democrats and President Obama's campaign. And that's true. All that is right.
On the other hand -- and I think that the other hand is somewhat larger in this case -- Mitt Romney's negatives are going up. He's under the microscope. He has stumbled here and there with some comments. He is being picked apart by his opponents and by the national media. His negatives are going up.
So, I think the bottom line of this is that it's probably doing more damage to him than good, although there is this -- you know, you really have to be tested. You have to go through the ringer to be prepared for a general election.
GWEN IFILL: And you can't be defeated by nobody. So how strong is the latest challenger to the throne, that is, Rick Santorum? Does he have the money, the organization to actually knock Mitt Romney off?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, he doesn't have as much money as Mitt Romney. He certainly doesn't have the organization he has.
But if he managed to win tomorrow night in Michigan, he would have the momentum that would carry him to the Super Tuesday contests just a week away, a week later, Alabama and Mississippi. I mean, there is a wave to these things.
Now, one thing we are now seeing, though, is Santorum support nationally is starting to ebb. He was 10 points above Mitt Romney in the Gallup national tracking poll when we were here last week. Today, he is down four. That's a huge swing. And it's the same kind of swing we have seen with other non -- other anybody-but-Romney candidates.
We saw it with Gingrich twice in the last two months and now with Santorum, where they surge up, they beat Romney, they get some scrutiny, they say some things perhaps that cause controversy, they go back down, Romney comes back up.
So, Romney has sustainability perhaps, even if he doesn't have a lot of enthusiasm.
GWEN IFILL: Do these ups and downs help the incumbent president on the sidelines largely?
STUART ROTHENBERG: There's no doubt that the president is doing better or is showing better in national polls.
I think there are two general categories or two reasons for that. One is the better economic numbers or the perception that things are getting better, consumer confidence and the unemployment rate, things like that.
But this Republican infighting is a huge -- it's a huge advantage. The president is really off the front pages, if you think about it, over the past six weeks. It hasn't been about Barack Obama, except when he does things like introduces this budget or talks about contraception.
But he has been on the sidelines. This is one of those cases where absence makes the heart grow fonder, apparently. So the public is focused on the negativity of the Republican race. That is helping the president.
GWEN IFILL: Are there issues which -- what a concept -- issues which are driving this discontent? Or is it just that people don't like Romney personally? Or are there issues with which these voters are saying, I like what this guy thinks about contraception or I like what he thinks about education?
SUSAN PAGE: There's almost no difference in the Republican field, if you take out Ron Paul, among the candidates between Romney and Santorum, very little difference on any of the 10 most important issues but what there is, is a difference in levels of trust about whether they really hold these positions.
They all say they're conservative. Are they really? And so this is hurting Romney, the idea that as governor of Massachusetts he took positions that were more moderate, that at his core perhaps people suspect he's more moderate than the rhetoric he's using now.
But if you wanted to parse out issues on the economy or the deficit or jobs, it is hard to find a big difference between the two men.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I agree entirely. I think if you just looked at the Romney speeches over the past three years, there is no sign that he's anything but a committed conservative. It's just that a huge chunk of the Republican Party does not believe that.
GWEN IFILL: So, March 6, 10 states, which ones are you watching?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think Ohio is obviously the -- if not the whole ball of wax, the most important. It's a state that is a swing state in the general election. It should be a swing state in this contest.
I think we're going to find out who did -- who won or lost Super Tuesday probably by Ohio.
SUSAN PAGE: And Santorum of course could challenge Romney in Ohio. That could be a good state for him.
The other state to watch is Georgia. If Newt Gingrich does not win in Georgia, his home state, can he stay in the race? Will he have the money and the standing to continue to be a credible candidate? I think that's a question to watch as well.
GWEN IFILL: And it's just not over.
Stuart Rothenberg, Susan Page, thank you both very much.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Sure. Thanks.