Romney, Santorum face pivotal debate

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum will take the stage Wednesday night for their first meeting since Santorum upended the GOP race two weeks ago with a spate of victories over the Republican front-runner.

The hugely anticipated presidential debate offers the GOP hopefuls their last, best chance to reclaim control of a chaotic race before a tidal wave of make-or-break contests on Super Tuesday, March 6.

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For Santorum, the Arizona and Michigan primaries seven days hence offer a chance to shatter Romney. A loss by Romney in either state, and especially in both, on Feb. 28 would likely plunge the Republican establishment into panic.

Romney’s task is to stop Santorum’s recent surge and reassert himself as the inevitable nominee-in-waiting who can best lead the general-election fight to unseat President Obama.

For Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, the Arizona debate Wednesday night is a crucial opportunity, perhaps the last one, to prevent the GOP primary from becoming a two-man race that doesn’t include them.



The 19 debates that dotted the early months of the primary calendar left many crying overkill. But the four remaining candidates haven’t been onstage together since Jan. 26 — the longest span without a debate since June 2011 —leaving an unscratched itch that one GOP strategist dubbed “debate withdrawal.”


As the 2012 race has shown repeatedly, a lot can happen in a month. When the candidates last met onstage in Florida, Gingrich had just crushed Romney in South Carolina and taken the lead in national polls. In the month since, Romney squashed Gingrich’s gains with wins in Florida and Nevada, then had the rug pulled out from under him days later by Santorum, who handed him defeats in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. 

Romney regained his footing with a narrow win in Maine, but Santorum has surpassed him in national polls and is even leading in Michigan, a must-win state for Romney where he and his family have deep ties.

But while Romney was able in Florida to bury Gingrich — then his top rival — with millions of dollars of ads that drove up Gingrich’s negative ratings, he has run out of obvious ammunition to use against Santorum.

Santorum lacks the heavy personal and ethical baggage that made Gingrich an easy target. Romney’s campaign has fired up its surrogates and ad machine, but the attacks have centered on Santorum’s past support for earmarks, circuit court judicial appointments and voting rights for ex-felons.

It was easy to move the needle with attack ads on a candidate tied to Freddie Mac, lobbying and ethics charges, but, as Romney’s campaign has learned, more difficult to do it with murky issues like earmarks.

Adding to Romney’s difficulties is his inability to use the most potent argument against Santorum: that his social conservatism makes him unelectable.

Santorum has spent the past few weeks cheerfully embracing his role as a culture warrior, marching to the right on contraception coverage, accusing Obama of employing a theology “not based on the Bible” and questioning the science of global warming.

That has some Republican insiders publicly fretting the party’s fate if Santorum is the nominee, but has left Romney in a weak position to undercut him.

“People like me look at this and say, ‘Can you imagine running a general-election campaign on gay marriage and contraception?’ ” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who endorsed Jon Huntsman in the primary. “But being the truest social conservative in the race has been Santorum’s biggest strength, so attacking that only seems to reinforce it, rather than undermine it.”

Romney also faces the very real risk that if he calls out Santorum for being too conservative, he ends up looking like a centrist by comparison — the very narrative Romney has worked industriously to dampen for the entirety of his campaign. He asserted to activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that he had run Massachusetts as a “severely conservative” governor.

By focusing his aggression since his February wins on Obama instead of Romney, Santorum has also denied the former governor an opportunity to seize the moral high ground and wield the righteous indignation that has proven so effective in debates this cycle. 

Gingrich has twice saved his campaign from political oblivion largely by playing the wounded warrior who refuses to give in to the unjust attacks of his opponents — and the media. And Romney’s best two debate performances — both in Florida — seized the chance to indignantly refute the attacks Gingrich lobbed in the air wars in South Carolina and in the subsequent debates.

“It was getting back at Gingrich and setting the record straight,” said Christian Ferry, a top adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 campaign. “I wonder if that same opportunity exists for Romney in this debate.”

But Romney does have one advantage in chipping away at Santorum that he didn’t have with Gingrich: an empty canvas. Voters have been familiar with Gingrich and his story for years, making it more difficult for Romney and the other candidates to redefine him. But Santorum, Herman Cain and Rick Perry were all relative unknowns to most of the electorate, making it easier to puncture any positive impression they created initially for voters.

“Gingrich had more room to absorb some body blows, and I don’t think Santorum does,” Cullen said.

National polls in the days before the Arizona debate put Santorum up about five points on Romney. Santorum is leading Romney in Michigan, where Romney’s father served as governor, but Romney has held a small lead in Arizona, home to a large swath of Mormon voters.

CNN’s John King will anchor Wednesday’s debate, which starts at 8 p.m. EST and takes place in Mesa, Ariz.