With Mitt Romney fighting for his political life in his home state of Michigan, tonight’s 20th –and possibly final – Republican presidential debate of the 2012 primary season should offer political junkies plenty of drama and high jinks.
If surging Rick Santorum can manage to topple Romney in next Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona, Romney would head into a tailspin that would likely take him out of the race, while Santorum would go on to lock up the GOP presidential nomination. Even a win in Arizona and a narrow loss in Michigan could spell very bad news for Romney, the fabulously wealthy former businessman and Massachusetts governor.
But we’ve been through this melodrama many times before, with the presumptive frontrunner Romney sent reeling by a more conservative challenger – think Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich -- only to find a way to claw his way back to the top.
Gingrich, the painfully pompous and garrulous former House speaker, was the last to make a serious run against Romney, with his stunning victory Jan. 21 in South Carolina. But Romney and his Super PAC bludgeoned Gingrich in Florida with a deluge of negative TV ads and two masterful debate performances by Romney that sent Gingrich to the sidelines. That occurred just as Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and Washington lobbyist, was engineering his big moment in the spotlight with three victories in the same night in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
So now it looks like Santorum may be the one – unless, of course, he shoots himself in the foot or suffers a devastating “oops” moment, as did the forgetful Texas governor Rick Perry during another fateful debate.
Romney may not be in as much trouble in Arizona as some of the experts were saying, according to a new poll from NBC News and Marist College, but he’s still slugging it out with Santorum in Michigan. A newly released NBC/Marist polls show Romney leading Santorum, 43 percent to 27 percent in Arizona, and 37 percent to 35 percent in Michigan – or essentially a statistical tie. The new poll is the first to show Romney leading in Michigan in quite some time. Santorum was scoring double-digit leads in some of the polls of Michigan Republican voters last week.
Tonight’s debate, sponsored by CNN and held in Arizona, is especially interesting because each candidate has different targets, according to Larry Sabato, a political expert with the University of Virginia. Romney has to carry both Arizona and Michigan, so he has to tailor his comments to appeal to both electorates, or at least mention both states frequently.
“I suspect he'll work Ohio into the conversation, too, since that is the key state on March 6,” Sabato said. “Santorum is doing surprisingly well in Arizona, but has kept his focus fixed on Michigan, hoping to upset Romney in his own home state. Will he broaden his focus to Arizona and Ohio, too?”
Gingrich knows he won't win anything next Tuesday. His targets are Ohio and Georgia on March 6, and then Alabama and Mississippi the next week. It will be interesting to see how Gingrich apportions his fire between Romney and Santorum. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the fourth candidate remaining in the race, will have his next chance in the Washington State caucuses on March 3.
This could easily turn out to be the last primary debate. That might not be true if it suits the frontrunner or frontrunners later on, but it is the only one on everybody's current schedule. “So what the contenders say here needs to last, and could count for a lot,” Sabato noted. “The top three can't afford to let opportunities pass them by. Each desperately wants to be judged the winner of this debate.”