Republican Rivals Clash in Heated Arizona Debate

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  February 23, 2012 at 9:24 AM EDT

GOP debate; photo by  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich participate in a debate Thursday night sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The 20th — and potentially final — debate of the Republican presidential hopefuls taught the nation a lot about Senate process.

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney lobbed their campaigns’ respective opposition research files at one another. Each was defensive, but Santorum struggled under attack after attack from his top rival.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won several points by returning to a tactic that worked well for him in previous debates — scolding the “elite media” instead of his fellow competitors. Texas Rep. Ron Paul mixed humor with stinging critiques, mostly directed at Santorum, much to Romney’s benefit.

The highlight of the evening was a lengthy back-and-forth on earmarking. It featured a tortured explanation from Santorum about how earmarking works, and reminders from each of the candidates that everyone on the stage had secured government funds for their home territory or projects.

Santorum accused Romney of unfairly attacking him for supporting earmarks, arguing that the former Massachusetts governor had requested “tens of millions of dollars” from the federal government when he ran the Bay State and while he was head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. (And admitting that he voted for that particular earmark.)

Romney sought to turn the former Pennsylvania senator’s statement that there are good earmarks and bad earmarks against him, saying, “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere,” a building project in Alaska that has become a symbol of government excess.

Here’s the toughest exchange from the transcript:

ROMNEY: I’m sorry. The 6,000 earmarks that were put in place under the speaker’s term, for instance, were oftentimes tagged on to other bills –

(BOOING)

ROMNEY: I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be critical. That was the process. There were thousands — I mean, we’ve had thousands and thousands of earmarks. They are typically tagged on to — bundled on to other bills. OK. Go ahead, Mr. Speaker. Go ahead.

SANTORUM: Wait a second. You’re entitled to your opinions, Mitt. You’re not entitled to –

ROMNEY: I’ve heard that line before. I’ve heard that before, yes.

SANTORUM: — misrepresent the facts, and you’re misrepresenting the facts. You don’t know what you’re taking about. What happened in the earmark process — what happens in the earmark process was that members of Congress would ask, formally, publicly request these things, put them on paper, and have them allocated, and have them voted on a committee, have them voted on, on the floor of the Senate. Congressman Paul — Congressman…

ROMNEY: Attached to a bill? Attached to a bill?

SANTORUM: As part of the bill. Congressman Paul…

ROMNEY: And the president can’t veto it?

SANTORUM: He can veto the bill.

ROMNEY: The whole bill, but he can’t veto the earmark?

SANTORUM: Well, we tried to do that, by the way. I supported a line-item veto.

ROMNEY: That’s what I support. That’s what I support.

(APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: Hold on. Hold on. Mitt, I agree with you. I support — I support the line-item veto. I voted for a line-item veto so we could do just that. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court struck it down. I would like to go back, as president, again, and give the president the authority to line-item veto. But that’s not the issue. The issue is were they transparent? And the bottom line was, when I was in the United States Senate, there was transparency, and Congressman Paul, who is one of the most prolific earmarkers in the Congress today, is — would tell you…

Soon after, Gingrich chimed in:

Now, look, let me just say flatly all of you need to think about this because this is one of those easy demagogic fights that gets you into a lot of trouble. If you have Barack Obama as president and you have a Republican House, you may want the House imposing certain things on the president.

Click here to watch a roundup of the earmark skirmish.

Santorum also struggled when pressed on his vote in support of the No Child Left Behind education reform measure, a key legislative priority of President Bush. Santorum said he backed the proposal even though “it was against the principles” he believed in. “You know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake,” Santorum said, drawing boos from the debate audience. “Politics is a team sport, folks, and sometimes you got to…rally together and do something.”

The word “jobs” came up eight times — twice from moderator John King and just six times from the candidates. The term “earmarks” was mentioned more than 30.

King asked Paul why his campaign released a television ad labeling Santorum a “fake.”

“Because he’s a fake,” Paul responded bluntly.

Santorum shot back, “I’m real, Ron. I’m real,” holding out his arm as if to prove his point.

Paul also scoffed: “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.’”

The men on the stage had a difficult time controlling their tempers, and in several cases voices were raised. The debate audience also displayed some feistiness, booing a question about whether the candidates support birth control.

Gingrich sought to turn the issue to his advantage, contending the mere question revealed a media bias that favored Democrats. “Not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide,” Gingrich said in reference to the 2008 campaign. “So let’s be clear here. If we’re going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama, who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.”

Santorum and Romney engaged in a particularly heated exchange about former Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat whom Santorum backed for re-election in 2004 over a conservative primary challenger in his home state.

“[T]he reason we have Obamacare is because the senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, the pro-choice senator of Pennsylvania that you supported and endorsed in a race over Pat Toomey, he voted for Obamacare. If you had not supported him, if we had said, no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obamacare. So don’t look at me. Take a look in the mirror,” Romney said.

If you missed it, here are the candidates describing themselves using just one word.

“I thought they all did fabulous,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer told CNN after the debate. But she did not, as she had previously suggested, endorse a candidate.

WE GOT YOU COVERED

Reporting from Arizona, Gwen Ifill spoke with Judy Woodruff on Wednesday night’s NewsHour about the Romney campaign’s superior ground game in the state.

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.

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

Judy also discussed the state of play in Michigan with Micki Maynard of Changing Gears and Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics.

Ballenger indicated the opposition to the auto bailout by both Romney and Santorum wasn’t likely to alter the shape of the GOP race, but the issue could come back to haunt the eventual nominee in the general election:

[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.

Maynard, meanwhile, remarked that the Michigan economy was improving but still in recovery:

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.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam looked into Romney’s donations, and found that “Romney is getting considerably less support from small-dollar donors, those who give less than $200 at a time.”

From the story:

Paul, Gingrich and Santorum all have raised more than half of their money from small donors. Romney’s campaign, by contrast, has brought in just 12 percent of its total from contributors giving less than $200 at a time.

Romney is raising even less from small donors than he did during his 2008 effort. In that campaign, 25 percent of his fundraising came from those supporters, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal filings.

A Romney aide dismissed the idea that the former Massachusetts governor lacks small-dollar contributors, citing internal figures showing that 105,723 people have given $250 or less to the campaign.

Former Sen. Russ Feingoled, D-Wis., told Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo that he can easily square his criticism of President Obama’s decision to allow donors to give to a super PAC with his fierce opposition to the practice.

“The thing that confuses me is how people can wonder how, if you agree with someone 95 percent of the time and you are open about your disagreements with the person, that means that you wouldn’t want to support him,” Feingold told TPM.

From the story:

Feingold said co-chairing the campaign was a “no brainer” despite his promise to keep up public criticisms of Obama on issues like civil liberties, the timetable for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and, most prominently, the President’s cozier relationship to super PACs….

“Obviously I want to co-chair his campaign: He’s the only chance we have to get Supreme Court justices that will help us undo Citizen’s United. He’s the only chance to have a president that I think conveys a positive image across America. I’m proud that he’s my president, and I have no hesitation to support him but I’m going to push him hard and push him publicly to do more on civil liberties, to get us out of Afghanistan and to stay away from super PACs. I don’t think those things are inconsistent at all.”

Jonathan Collegio of American Crossroads wrote a memo Wednesday highlighting that labor unions plan to spend “more than $400 million” to help Mr. Obama and the Democrats. “The fact is that unions have consistently dominated the outside spending wars” for decades and spend money on canvassing, GOTV, phone banks, direct mail and other initiatives, he wrote.

“Since the 1930s, Big Labor has been the defacto grassroots infrastructure of the Democratic Party,” he wrote. “Their efforts may not be as visible on TV but they are spending big money on behalf of Democrats – most of which is not publicly disclosed. Center-right groups like Crossroads can only hope to balance out what the left has been doing through Big Labor for nearly a century.”

OBAMA LAUNCHES TV AD IN MICHIGAN

President Obama began running a new television ad in Michigan on Thursday. The “Made in America” ad focuses on the auto bailout and chastises the four GOP primary contenders for “turning their back” when “one million jobs were on the line” in Detroit. The ad is paid for by the Obama campaign and comes on the heels of an NBC/Marist poll released Wednesday showing the president opening up a wide lead over each of the potential Republican nominees with potential Michigan voters.

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • Time Magazine’s Michael Scherer has a piece about the importance of Latino voters this fall.

  • Bloomberg News’ Jesse Drucker has an investigative report on Romney’s work with hotel operator Marriott International.

  • Rush Limbaugh challenges the press to ask Paul about Roll Call’s reports about his double-billing on trips home to Texas.

  • Gingrich is staking out the next phase of his candidacy on energy policy. He talked about it at length Wednesday night. The former House speaker also sent Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith a request to investigate the Department of Justice’s action toward oil companies.

  • The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget finds in a new report that the national debt would increase under the economic plans of every White House hopeful but Paul.

  • Watch the new pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund super PAC ad here.

  • Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a Republican, will announce his third-party candidacy with both Americans Elect and the Reform Party Thursday.

  • MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to imagine if he ran for president and lost New Jersey. Christie deadpanned, “It’s possible, actually.”

  • The Obama campaign is doing another meal-with-the-president contest. Rufus Gifford, the campaign’s national finance director, wrote in an email: “Consider this: A couple months ago, Scott, a firefighter and dad from Georgia, opened an email about having dinner with the President. He pitched in a few dollars to support the campaign, figuring Why not?’ Weeks later, the President was offering him a french fry from across the table. So if you think that could never be you, remember that Scott thought that, too.”

TOP TWEETS

OUTSIDE THE LINES

NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • President Obama speaks at a fundraiser in Coral Gables, Fla., at 4:20 p.m. and speaks at a private home for a campaign fundraiser at 5:55 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney addresses the Associated Builders and Contractors national meeting in Phoenix at 10:30 a.m. and attends a Tea Party event in Milford, Mich., at 7 p.m.

  • Newt Gingrich holds a pair of Washington State rallies: in Kennewick at 2 p.m. and Spokane at 5 p.m. He also attends a rally in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at 10:30 p.m.

  • Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have no public campaign events scheduled.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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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 and @suddinengel.

This post was updated at 10:13 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.