Romney Fights for His Life in Tonight’s Debate
Policy + Politics

Romney Fights for His Life in Tonight’s Debate

REUTERS/Jason Reed

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.”

For tonight, at least, it’s a two-man battle, between Santorum and Romney, and here are some things to consider heading into the big showdown:

  • Rick Santorum -- Overcoming the stature problem – The former senator’s trifecta victories in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri and subsequent surge in the polls gave him the sweet taste of a frontrunner, while giving the Romney camp heartburn. His-straight-from-the heart message of conservative Christian family values, his strong opposition to abortion,  his powerful attacks on Obama’s health care reform law, and his call for smaller, less intrusive government all play well  with blue collar workers, Evangelical  Christians and Tea Party adherents. Nearly 30 percent of Michigan’s population is Catholic, which is good news for Santorum.  And hey, with his Pennsylvania coal-miner’s grandson bio and animated delivery, Santorum is a lot more interesting to watch than the stiff, relatively colorless Romney.

Santorum will attack Romney and his flip-flops on health care, abortion, etc., for sure, but will also try to play the Reaganesque frontrunner, throwing out red meat for the base by using his tested anti-Obama lines. In his push to humiliate Romney in his home state, Santorum is focusing largely on social and religious wedge issues to lock up the right wing of his party.

But he is doing that at the expense of economic issues that are of prime importance to voters in Michigan and the rest of the Rust Belt. And while many of Santorum’s most provocative comments and stands largely sailed over voters’ heads when he was a minor candidate who had to wave frantically to get the attention of debate moderators, now his zingers are drawing intense media scrutiny, and he is in danger of being branded a zealot who lacks presidential timbre.

Invoking the rise of Hitler to illustrate the importance of Republicans defeating President Obama this year, questioning women’s use of contraception and prenatal testing, suggesting that home schooling is preferable to an “anachronistic” public school system, and dismissing global warming as a “hoax” are all over the top positions that  serve to marginalize Santorum as a national leader.  He is certain to be asked tonight about some of his more controversial statements and positions. How he handles those questions and pivots back to the more consequential issues of the economy and jobs – could well determine whether he will continue his current political trajectory.

  • Mitt Romney – Finding his voice again – It’s still possible he can pull out a narrow victory in Michigan next week, but Romney is sure making the point that you can’t go home again. The son of an auto company chief and three-term Michigan governor, Romney by all rights should be coasting through the Michigan primary and focusing most of his attention on Arizona and other important battleground states. Romney won his home state four years ago over Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in a contest in which Romney was cast as the conservative voice to McCain’s more moderate views  But this time around, Romney has seemed flummoxed by Santorum’s raging popularity throughout Michigan’s  conservative strongholds, and he frequently has stumbled in making his case to voters.

Political experts and Romney boosters say he needs to transcend his wooden rhetoric and inanities about loving Michigan’s lakes and cars and trees, and show a lot more passion in describing the need for economic growth and upward mobility and opportunities to succeed. Many Michiganders no longer care whether he was born and raised in Michigan decades ago in a very different economic and industrial climate. But they are interested in his success as a businessman and former Massachusetts governor, and how he would help the economy and the country get back on its feet.

Moreover, he needs a more artful explanation for why he opposed the federal government bailout of General Motors and Chryler as they were going through a managed bankruptcy. He might have been wise to pivot on that issue earlier this year, during a Republican debate in Michigan, but he wouldn’t. And now he’s still saddled with having to explain why the massive infusion of federal funds wasn’t really needed as part of the retooling of the two major car companies – when many analysts say it would have been impossible without the infusion of public funds and the result was a major success. But this would be more of a problem for Romney in the general election than next week’s primary, because polls show that many Michigan Republicans disagreed with the bailout.

Romney has demonstrated before that when the chips are down, he can turn things around with a strong debate performance, as he did twice against Gingrich in Florida.  He will have to do that gain tonight.  Romney will want to reinforce his attacks on Santorum – a former member of the House and the Senate -- as an earmark-loving, debt-increasing big spender. He must come at Santorum from the right, and not rely on electability arguments that fall flat with much of the GOP base. (They remember the party establishment selling McCain in '08 the same way.) Romney will joust with Gingrich to help keep him alive and dividing the anti-Romney vote. Finally, the unusual Romney-Paul alliance may be on display as Paul goes after Santorum as a phony conservative.