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February 22, 2012 7:57 pm

The Algemeiner’s Republican Debate Blog from Mesa, Arizona

avatar by Dmitriy Shapiro

Tonight, ahead of crucial GOP nomination primaries in Michigan and Arizona being held next week, CNN will present yet another GOP Presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona, after a long hiatus in the national debate schedule.

Less than a month ago, few envisioned a surge for the former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Yet, Santorum will take center stage today, a first for his campaign. Polls show Santorum leading with a slight margin in Michigan — Gov. Mitt Romney’s home state — and apparently catching up to Romney in Arizona.

Indeed an unusual turn of events. So far, Romney has survived being overtaken by almost every current and former candidate; but still, some of the best political minds believed that at least by this time, he would have a clear lead.

Romney’s inability to break through is unsettling for the big ticket names who endorsed him. When Romney lost previous contests, his campaign and supporters were not too shaken. Now, the looming reality of a loss in states his campaign considered safe, is creating doubt. Why hasn’t he broken through? Why is Santorum in the lead?

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The answer is simply authenticity and work ethic. While Romney and Newt Gingrich were busy launching vicious attacks at each other — ignoring voter issues and avoiding states they considered unimportant because of their lack of convention delegates — Santorum continued his shoe-string campaign in these “insignificant” states. Santorum easily won Colorado and Minnesota, together with a large margin in the non-binding Missouri Caucus. In their rage, Gingrich and Romney underestimated that in the early primaries, the delegate tally is insignificant; what counts most is the media coverage received following a victory. Santorum, proving that he can win, has moderated his conservative ideologue image to become the positive, likeable “common man’s” candidate — a candidate Republican voters can support who’s not blurred by a fog of negativity as the two former frontrunners. Likability is essential. It’s why Obama beat Clinton; why George W. Bush beat John Kerry. For better or worse, voters are attracted to the candidate they can be comfortable having a beer with.

With the added scrutiny that comes with being a frontrunner, tonight’s debate will prove to be an essential test. Greater media coverage has led to some tactical missteps by the Santorum side in the past few weeks. There is no question that Santorum will be grilled about these missteps, with his stance on contraception taking center stage. In general, concerns over Iran, Syria, and the major threat of rising gas prices will likewise be prominent.

Watch live streaming of the CNN debate here.

8:04 – This is one of the most important debates to date. Coming after a long break, voters will no longer suffer from debate fatigue and will pay more attention. Newt Gingrich, who has suffered most in the polls, will need to distinguish himself. This debate is also unique, because it is the only debate so far to preempt two major swing states, that both have a fair amount of delegates.

National Anthem being performed by the ASU Symphonic Chorale following John King’s introduction.

8:07 – Rick Santorum mentions that he’s the “positive” candidate in his introduction, a very wise move.

8:09 – Newt Gingrich leads his introduction with gas prices issue. Audience member asks how each candidate will shrink the debt.

Santorum: Santorum promises to go after the means tested entitlement programs. Propose a time limit on welfare and a work requirement.
8:11 – Romney: “Is this program so critical that’s worth borrowing from China to pay for it?” Romney, predictably,  touts his business experience balancing budgets.
8:20 – Rick Santorum first on the attack, accusing Romney of raising taxes. Gingrich Gingrich quotes Hamilton about balancing budgets. As usual, his history knowledge gives his answer gravitas. Ron Paul is confronted for his attacks on Rick Santorum, calling him “fake.” Moment of levity, since Rick Santorum is sitting right next to him. They awkwardly shook hands. Ron Paul says he will cut all foreign aide to balance the budget.

8:21 – Seated position for this debate unusual but significant. It belies the tension between the candidates, while allowing them to organize their thoughts towards their next answer on paper.

8:23 – Mitt Romney is asked to clarify why he called himself the “conservative” governor of Massachusetts. This has been a recent change in Romney’s campaign focus. He is trying to list everything conservative he has done, to quell voters’ lack of trust in his ideological stance.

8:27 – Gingrich: Proposes to completely rebuild the government rather than tweak it like the other candidates. He’s appealing to Tea Party voters in Arizona. Arizona is one of the most fervent Tea Party states. Likewise, his mention of the Mexico border issues plays well, since Arizona is known to be the toughest on Illegal immigration. Debates are Gingrich’s element.

8:29 – Santorum defends his past of earmarks by pointing out that Jim DeMint was an ear-marker. This is not a well advised attack on DeMint. Won’t appeal to the Tea Party.

Romney to Santorum: “While I was fixing the Olympics, you were voting for the bridge to nowhere.”
8:30 – The candidates are sitting much to close to each other for such tense debate. This looks dangerous.
8:31 – Santorum calls Congressman Paul one of the most prolific ear-markers in Congress today.
8:33 – Congressman Paul excuses his earmarking saying that if it was not sent back to the states, it would remain with the federal government, because of his belief that the Federal Government will misappropriate it.

8:35 – Santorum just dealt a death blow to Romney in Michigan, saying that he was against the automobile industry bailout on principal, as he is opposed to all bailouts while citing that Mitt Romney supported the “Wall Street” bailout, and for the auto companies.

8:38 – Romney defends his position, saying that he wanted the auto companies to go through managed bankrupcy before they recieved a bailout.

Romney: “Giving those companies to the UAW was wrong.”
Romney’s statements are receiving a lot of cheers from the audience. Maybe support is coming back to him after their brief affair with Santorum.

8:45 – Issues of faith coming after the break. Will they ask why Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, as Catholics, do not have ashes on foreheads for Ash Wednesday?

8:48 – John King looks like he’s going to get a beating from Gingrich again. Audience and candidates offended by “birth control” question from Twitter. Unlikeable questions seem to be King’s specialty. Candidates appropriately changing the subject to criticize Obama.

8:51 – Santorum is skillfully qualifying his percieved opposition to contraception by moving it away from a issue of faith, to an issue of the moral state of American society.

Ron Paul: “The pills can’t be blamed for the immorality of our society.”
Romney: “Rick is right. When you have 40% of kids being born outside of wedlock, you wonder how we’re going to have a society in the future.”

8:58 – Gingrich agreeing with Paul an awful lot today. Good move in Arizona. What he just said is likely one of the strongest and best constructed statements in any of this election cycle’s debates.

9:02 – Romney is saying that there is a lot in Obama’s healthcare bill that he disagrees with that is different from Massachusetts Healthcare.

There really is no significant difference. Santorum wins this round hands down.

9:06 – Audience Question: “What will your administration do to fix the situation; to secure our border and to protect the American people?”

Ron Paul: “We should take our forces off the Pakistani border and put them on the Mexican border.”

9:08 – Camera zooms onto Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the audience.

9:12 – It actually appears that Rick Santorum looks the most presidential today.

Gingrich: Hispanics want a border that’s controlled, that has easy access for legality and no access for illegality.
9:21 – One of the most interesting pieces recently was written recently at Roll Call, which discovered that Ron Paul is getting reimbursed for his flights by both donors and Congress. Will King asked Paul to defend himself?Looks like Rush Limbaugh agrees with me.

9:23 – Gingrich: “I believe this (Obama) is the most dangerous president on national security grounds in American history.”

9:28 – How do you plan on dealing with the growing nuclear threat in Iran? Gingrich: I can’t imagine why Gen. Dempsey would say that Iran is a rational actor. “I’m inclined to believe dictators, it’s dangerous not to!” “There are times when you have a moral right to preempt to avoid destruction.”

9:31 – Santorum says that he has been advocating against Iran for eight years. Once more, he reminds that Obama has supported the Islamic brotherhood against Allied leaders in Egypt and Libya while not standing up to worse dictators in Iran and Syria.

9:33 – Paul makes a clear point that sanctions have been ineffective against Cuba and in most other cases, therefore most likely will be ineffective against Iran.

9:36 – Gingrich: We should get our Arab allies to covertly act against Syria’s Assad Regine. “This is an administration where as long as you’re an American enemy you are safe…”

9:40 – Ron Paul mentions neoconservatives as the cause for American foreign-policy. True, but when is he going to give the Illuminati and the New World Order some credit? Paul and his supporters play with these kind of conspiracy theories to their detriment.

9:49 – John King suggested that this might be the last GOP debate. Judging by appearances, that’s highly unlikely.

10:00 – Debate concludes with candidates clarifying public misconceptions about themselves to the audience.

Final Wrap-Up: Gingrich: A-, Santorum: B, Romney: B, Paul B-
Maybe an easy grader, but nobody including Paul, performed particularly bad today. Santorum, although not pulling in a Oscar worthy performance, attacked Romney effectively despite the added pressure and scrutiny he has as the newly minted frontrunner. Romney was convincing, although still not exceptional. With this state of equilibrium between Romney and Santorum, odds are that Romney is set to regain his lead in both Michigan and Arizona, although there seems to be no objective reason why supporters should jump from the Santorum ship.
But for Gingrich, these debates are like air, as his campaign has proven that they cannot gain any traction without them. Who’s heard anything of Gingrich in the past month? Yet today, his exceptional performance will help more than a few remember him.
Seeing how it is still anyone’s game, and Super Tuesday is right around the corner, I doubt that any candidate will drop out anytime soon. Maybe not even after Super Tuesday on March 5th. With each candidate having their own “sugar daddy” backing their Super-PAC, why should they?
Thank you for joining the Algemeiner live debate blog, tune in next time for minute by minute updates.

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