ANALYSIS | Just how important is the CNN Arizona Republican presidential debate? Considering that it is the last GOP debate going into the primaries in Arizona and Michigan and the Washington caucus (March 3), not to mention the 10-state election-fest known as Super Tuesday (March 6), it could become very important indeed. Here's why:
Whack-a-mole (whack-a-candidate?) champion Mitt Romney has had fairly good success at knocking his Republican competitors down one by one as they've risen to challenge him, but he's gotten some intense competition in his home state that just might undermine voter confidence in his abilities to win the general election if he can't even pull off a win in Michigan. He had drifted behind in the polls there (according to Real Clear Politics tracking) following his election losses in Colorado, Missouri, and nearby Minnesota, but has bounced back in the last five polls to win a couple, lose a couple, and finish tied in another.
The Michigan Primary elects delegates (30) to the Republican National Convention on a proportional basis and losing there in what looks as if it will be a close contest will not hurt Santorum nearly as bad as if Romney should lose.
The Arizona Primary is a winner-take-all contest (29 delegates). With less than a week to go, Arizona polls are showing Romney with a comfortable lead over the former Pennsylvania senator. In fact, Romney has held the lead for some time in the Grand Canyon State. However, that lead is not insurmountable -- as indicated in election outcomes where Santorum trailed in polls in other primary and caucus states prior to the actual elections.
Romney cannot afford to lose both and appear to be losing ground to Santorum's recent upsurge in momentum. Large numbers of voters are notorious for making decisions on or just prior to election days. A double loss -- and maybe just a slight loss in Michigan -- this close to Super Tuesday could sway voters toward Santorum and, ultimately, could force a brokered and contentious RNC or see Romney lose the nomination altogether should Santorum win enough delegates.
Washington state, with its 43 delegates, is also at play in this equation, holding their Caucus on March 3 between the Arizona/Michigan elections and the Super Tuesday crush of states. By the end of March, another 11 states will have cast ballots for delegates, leaving only 22 states left to hold their primaries and caucuses.
Santorum, according to Public Policy Polling, holds an 11-point advantage in the Evergreen State.
As for the importance of the Arizona presidential debate, it should be noted that major gaffes or policy statements that either help or hurt a candidate are often uttered in the heat of a debate. The subsequent media and electorate attention to those highlights -- be they beneficial or not -- often sway a great number of voters in impending primary and/or caucus elections. Previous debates have acted as winnowing events for GOP candidates, as can be seen in the quick rise and fall of early contenders Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas governor Rick Perry. Although Bachmann did well overall in her debate performances, it was a follow-up story to an advantage gained against Perry's position on the HPV vaccine that ultimately saw her campaign go under. And Perry, who rose to the top of the polls when he entered the GOP race, fell quickly when he put in several consecutive poor performances.
At present, the four Republican presidential hopefuls have been reduced to two strong contenders for the GOP nomination -- Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Romney's advantages are apparent in his business successes, his campaign experience, his executive experience, and, until recently, the added advantage of deep financial support. Santorum, until recently, has not had much financial support -- or any other kind of support (including among the Republican electorate), for that matter. But the former senator has shown political tenacity and perseverance and has taken advantage of two of his major conservative assets: his religious views and his not being Mitt Romney. Regardless, he has had the lead in national polls against Romney for nearly two weeks, according to Real Clear Politics' tracking.
Whether or not Santorum can press his newfound advantage among conservative voters to win in Michigan and Arizona, hold on to Washington, then take a majority of delegates in the Super Tuesday elections, remains to be seen. But it could all hinge on what he says during the Arizona Republican debate on Feb. 22. And the same can be said of Romney. Looking back on the 19 debates that have come before Wednesday night's CNN verbal joust, Santorum has yet to come away from a debate seriously wounded, whereas Romney has made a few gaffes and even aroused voter suspicion with his reluctance to release his income tax returns.
And then there is the wild card element to be considered. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas representative Ron Paul could also present well (or not) and/or help or hurt one or more of the candidates. Paul has already gone after Santorum, questioning his conservative credentials in political ads. Gingrich, an avowed friend of Santorum's, has yet to actually hit the former senator with anything detrimental (as he has with his attacks on Romney's seemingly more liberal political positions), but that could change, depending how badly Gingrich wants to try and return to frontrunner status. Of course, continuing to spar with Romney will most likely only help Santorum.
To be succinct: Thirteen primaries and caucuses in two weeks that could change the delegate count considerably. Two key primaries within a week (one of them being a major candidate's home state) which could alter the momentum of the frontrunning candidates. One debate with all the potential misstatements, gaffes, crowd-pleasers, and highlights that it implies.
The Arizona debate could be very important indeed...
- Mitt Romney
- Rick Santorum