Stakes are High as Republican Rivals Set to Meet in Arizona for 20th Debate

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  February 22, 2012 at 9:56 AM EST

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney; photo by Charles Dharapa/Pool-Getty Images

Rick Santorum, left, and Mitt Romney are running a close race in Arizona. Photo by Charles Dharapa/Pool-Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The four remaining Republican presidential hopefuls will meet in Mesa, Ariz., Wednesday night for the 20th and potentially final debate of the GOP nominating season.

A CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll released Tuesday showed that 36 percent of people likely to vote in next week’s Arizona GOP primary said they support Mitt Romney as the party’s nominee. Rick Santorum received the backing of 32 percent of respondents, but the four-point margin was within the poll’s sampling error.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich placed third with 18 percent, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 6 percent.

Another survey, from NBC News/Marist, has Romney up by 16 points over Santorum, 43 percent to 27 percent, among Arizona GOP voters.

The two leading contenders for the Republican nomination will be seated at the center of the debate table Wednesday night, their first meeting in nearly a month.

The stakes are high, with no other debates scheduled before Super Tuesday on March 6, meaning Wednesday offers the last chance for each of the candidates to make a final impression to a national audience before voters in more than a dozen states cast their ballots.

(Follow @pbsgwen, @maryjobrooks and @mobilemort for up-to-the-minute coverage from Arizona.)

For Santorum, Wednesday’s debate marks the first time he will be positioned in the center, as recent national polls have shown him in the lead. Can he withstand the scrutiny that will undoubtedly come with his new front-runner status, most notably on his conservative social views?

For Romney, the meeting provides the opportunity to halt Santorum’s momentum. Will he challenge the former Pennsylvania senator on more than just fiscal issues such as earmarks and spending, or will he engage on social issues as well?

Perhaps no candidate has benefited more from the debates than Gingrich. Can he seize what might be the last such encounter to give his campaign a much-needed boost heading into a crucial round of voting in the next two weeks?

And will Paul, who has gone after Santorum in a new television ad, help Romney out by leveling similar charges Wednesday night?

DON’T FORGET ABOUT MICHIGAN

While the focus Wednesday is on Arizona, it appears Michigan, the other state with a primary Tuesday, is where things are really getting interesting.

An NBC News/Marist poll of likely GOP primary voters in the Great Lakes State found Romney with 37 percent support, closely followed by Santorum at 35 percent. Paul received 13 percent in the survey, while Gingrich took 8 percent.

As the polling indicates, Michigan appears to be a two-man race, and will likely stay that way as Gingrich has reportedly dropped plans to campaign in the state in the coming week.

Given Romney’s Michigan roots, a loss in the state would deal a severe blow to his candidacy and buoy Santorum’s candidacy heading into Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote.

Romney is headed back to Michigan on Thursday and plans to target a key part of Santorum’s coalition — Tea Party supporters — by attending an event in Milford. The NBC/Marist poll showed Santorum leading Romney among self-identified Tea Party supporters in the state, 48 percent to 29 percent, a margin the former Massachusetts governor hopes to narrow in the next five days.

The Detroit News editorial board weighed in on Romney’s behalf Wednesday, writing, “Mitt Romney stands alone among the Republican primary field as the candidate capable of winning the White House, and more importantly, of leading the nation to a prosperous future.”

If Romney is able to eke out a win in his native state and also score a victory in Arizona, the momentum (and the narrative) would likely turn back in his favor.

SANTORUM’S SPEECHES

Santorum has given many speeches in the years since Bob Casey defeated him for re-election, no doubt fodder for opposition researchers. That’s probably one reason a 2008 address surfaced Tuesday.

“Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity and sensuality as the root to attack all of these strong plants that have so deeply rooted in the American tradition,” he told students at Ave Maria University in Florida in 2008. The Drudge Report bannered the comments, prompting several news outlets to dig them up in context.

Santorum said he wasn’t going to defend every past statement dug up from the archives, but told reporters in Phoenix: “I believe in good and evil. I think if somehow or another because you’re a person of faith you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president we’re going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president.”

Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh said Santorum’s enemies will try to twist things out of context, but suggested the candidate has some explaining to do, Politico reports.

And Huffington Post unearthed a Philadelphia Magazine story from December 1995 that quotes Santorum saying he was “basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress…But it had never been something I thought about.”

The story also includes an “issue statement” believed to be from Santorum’s first run for office in 1990 outlining “sensitivity” to both sides of the abortion debate. It was sent to the Huffington Post by an operative who worked on that campaign

Politico’s Jonathan Martin delves into Santorum’s record as a Rust Belt politician, noting: “Conversations with Pennsylvania politicos of both parties reveals a very different portrait of the dogmatic presidential candidate who sounds epochal warning about President Obama. He was affable, accessible and shrewd when it came to the practice of politics.”

David Urban, Specter’s former chief of staff, recalled how Santorum pushed federal legislation to crack down on puppy mills.

“You wouldn’t say Rick Santorum and PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] would be allies,” deadpanned Urban. “But there are a lot of PETA members in Pennsylvania, I can tell you that.”

[Former Gov. Ed] Rendell described a guy’s guy, able to talk football in the same breath as federal judgeships — and always willing to separate politics from governance.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

On Tuesday’s NewsHour John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch detailed the billionaires backing candidates. In the discussion with Margaret Warner, Dunbar noted that Peter Thiel is the major financier of a pro-Paul super PAC.

“He was an early investor in Facebook. He was actually portrayed in the movie ‘Social Network’ as the angel investor in that movie. He’s a 44-year-old guy, worth lots of money. And he’s given something close to three-quarters of all of the money that has gone in to Endorse Liberty. And he is a very devout libertarian, very much a hands-off, government-hands-off-business kind of a guy,” Dunbar said. See iWatch’s reporting on the January Federal Election Commission reports here.

Nicholas Confessore, Michael Luo and Mike McIntire deem this “a new breed of superdonor” in a New York Times piece Wednesday: “About two dozen individuals, couples or corporations have given $1 million or more to Republican super PACs this year, an exclusive club empowered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other rulings to pool their money into federal political committees and pour it directly into this year’s presidential campaign.” What’s more, they write:

Collectively, their contributions have totaled more than $50 million this cycle, making them easily the most influential and powerful political donors in politics today. They have relatively few Democratic counterparts so far, with most of the leading liberal donors from past years giving relatively small amounts — or not at all — to the Democratic super PACs.

And unlike in past years, when wealthy donors of both parties donated chiefly to groups that were active in the general election campaign, the top Republican donors are contributing money far earlier, in contests that will determine the party’s presidential nominee.

Roll Call’s Eliza Newlin Carney reports Wednesday that watchdog group Democracy 21 is alleging that the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund has engaged in illegal coordination with the candidate. A letter from the group “cites news reports suggesting that Foster Friess, founder of the investment management firm Friess Associates, was engaged in discussions with the super PAC about the nature of its ads at the same time as he was campaigning with Santorum as a member of the candidate’s entourage,” she writes. Carney quotes the super PAC spokesman Stuart Roy that the super PAC “does not coordinate with any federal candidates or campaigns.”

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • The NewsHour’s lead story Tuesday was on how high gas prices are being used as a political weapon. Watch it here.

  • Politico’s Morning Score reported that between now and Super Tuesday, Gingrich will buy “30-minute blocks of airtime in key cities to air a video address” about lowing gas prices and energy independence.

  • Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer will endorse a candidate after the debate, the New York Times reports.

  • MSNBC’s Michael O’Brien makes note of Romney’s comments Tuesday in Michigan that spending cuts slow economic growth.

  • Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s book, “An American Son: A Memoir,” will be released Oct. 2.

  • The Obama campaign released the names of its national co-chairs. It’s a mix of elected officials, business leaders and “volunteer leaders” in key battleground states, such as Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina, and includes independent Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican. Also on the list are Caroline Kennedy, actress Eva Longoria, former White House staffer and actor Kalpen Modi and Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign.

  • Mr. Obama sang on camera. Again. Watch the video.

  • The Huffington Post puts out a casting call for citizen bloggers to cover the nominating conventions. “[W]ith the help of our reader/viewers, HuffPost editors will select 24 citizen journalists” to cover the conventions. “The winners — up to 12 for each convention — will get official credentials, airfare, hotel accommodation for five nights, and a basic per diem. They also will get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see history in the making, and report on it as it happens for one of the world’s leading news sites,” Howard Fineman writes.

TOP TWEETS

OUTSIDE THE LINES

  • The Obama administration will propose changes to the corporate tax rate Wednesday, including “lowering the top income-tax rate for corporations to 28% from 35% [and] … eliminating dozens of popular deductions.” The Wall Street Journal has the details.

  • A survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling examines states’ favorability ratings among voters. A closer look at the data, with consideration to the disparity between favorability and unfavorability ratings, shows that self-identified Democrats favor blue states (California, Massachusetts and New York) while Republicans favor red states (Texas, Alaska and Arizona). The survey also shows a near toss-up between the views Republicans and Democrats hold of battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The one thing everyone seemed to agree on: They all dislike New Jersey.

  • Former Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., sent out an email to supporters Tuesday encouraging them to join donate to Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s re-election campaign in Ohio. Kucinich is running in a Democratic primary race against his colleague, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, thanks to redistricting. “Two weeks from today, the remarkable 43-year political career of Congressman Dennis Kucinich will either continue, or it will end. I want it to continue. So I’m maxing out to Dennis Kucinich’s campaign,” wrote Grayson, a champion fundraiser ousted in 2010 but is running again this fall.

  • Politico’s Alex Isenstadt talked with Herman Cain about the former presidential contender’s plans to get involved in congressional races.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Tuesday he is leaning toward running for re-election in 2014 and possibly another stab at the White House two years after that, Jay Root writes for the Texas Tribune.

  • Donald Trump told CNBC he would “seriously, seriously” consider jumping into the White House race if Santorum wins the GOP presidential nomination, Political Wire reports. Watch the video.

  • Although the newly released Minnesota congressional reapportionment map has drawn GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann into Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum’s 4th District, a Twin Cities member-vs.-member race is not in the cards, Roll Call’s Abby Livingston reports. Bachmann’s home no longer falls in the 6th District, but she will have a better chance of winning re-election under the new map.

  • Half of your Morning Line duo is moderating a panel at South by Southwest in Austin next month. Here are the details, tell all your friends.

NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • The four GOP contenders meet for a debate in Mesa, Ariz., at 8 p.m.

  • Ron Paul holds a pair of Mesa, Ariz., fundraisers at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney holds a rally in Chandler, Ariz., at 11:50 a.m.

  • Rick Santorum addresses a Tea Party rally in Tucson, Ariz., at 1:30 p.m.

  • Newt Gingrich holds a post-debate event in Scottsdale, Ariz., at 10:30 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers.