When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer parlayed the leverage that she had by threatening to move Arizona’s primary up and cause chaos in the primary calendar to get Arizona a nationally televised GOP debate, she ensured that all eyes would be on her state.
With Mitt Romney struggling in Michigan, Santorum challenging Romney’s front-runner status, Gingrich needing to climb back into the race and Paul being Paul, tonight’s debate will be critical in influencing not only the next three weeks in the GOP primary but perhaps being a determinative debate.
Here are the stakes for the four candidates going into the debate.
If Romney loses the Michigan primary, it could be devastating for his campaign. Romney, for the most part, has succeeded in the debates by attacking President Barack Obama and acting like the front-runner he has been. He will have to do a lot more than that during tonight’s debate. Romney has to prove to conservatives that he can be tolerable. He has to show he is genuine and authentic in at least some of his beliefs. He has to show he can beat Obama standing for something instead of being the generic Republican who wins only if Obama stumbles. And he also, like he successfully did to former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the Florida debates, may have to fiercely attack Santorum on the national stage and engage him to blunt the momentum Santorum may have in Michigan and Arizona.
The former Pennsylvania senator is leading national polls and is slightly ahead of Romney in Michigan, according to numerous polls, while statistically tied with Romney in Arizona. Despite his strong showing in the polls, Santorum must attack Romney as ferociously as he did during the last debate before the Florida primary, when many observers felt Santorum attacked Romney on health care more ferociously than former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Voters are giving Santorum a look and will more likely vote for him because he is the “not-Romney” candidate rather than for Santorum.
Santorum, who was wrongly and falsely vilified by a mainstream media that misinterpreted his comments about how liberals and Obama often treat environmentalism as if it were a religion — somehow implying that Obama is not a Christian — will also have to show that he can be a social conservative/culture warrior who does not turn off independent and women voters.
Additionally, Santorum, whose economic plan to revive the country’s manufacturing has been heralded, has an opportunity to tout his appeal to the industrial Midwest in addition to highlighting his conservative stances on immigration, which will help him with conservative voters in Arizona. Santorum may also have the best opportunity to directly appeal to voters in Michigan and Arizona on two issues, manufacturing and immigration, respectively, that resonate with primary voters in those states.
Gingrich used the debates to brawl back into relevancy when few thought his candidacy would survive last summer. Gingrich, who has been speaking of Obama’s failed energy policy, has been all over the place as a candidate but has one final chance to reset his campaign on the national stage yet again. If Gingrich can gain momentum out of the debate, the calendar looks good for him after Super Tuesday if he is still standing by then. It is a waste of energy, though, to even predict what Gingrich will do at the debate or how he will try to get back into this race. He has seemed to lack a coherent strategy except for attacking the mainstream media and the moderators. But this is his last chance to do something to revive his candidacy yet again.
Paul is the same person in nearly every debate. Everyone knows what Paul will be for in the debate. He will be against foreign intervention. He will advocate for libertarian policies. No surprises there.
The big question will be which candidates Paul will be against. Paul has been reluctant to attack Romney as fiercely as he has the other candidates. If Paul highlights Santorum’s and Gingrich’s flaws, he will be Romney’s best friend in the debate as, some have argued, he has been in the Republican primary.