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Can Mitt Romney Fend Off Rick Santorum? What to Expect At the CNN Arizona Republican Debate

Wednesday’s GOP debate in Mesa, Ariz. – the 26th overall and the eighth in 2012 alone – occurs at a critical juncture in the Republican primary. With the field narrowed to four presidential hopefuls, the pendulum of success swinging from candidate to candidate, and President Barack Obama beginning to fully focus on his reelection campaign, none of the candidates can afford a less than stellar performance on Wednesday. 

The import of Wednesday’s debate is only compounded by the cancellation of a forthcoming debate due to lack of participation. And of course, Super Tuesday is approaching on March 6, meaning Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) will have few opportunities to command the nation’s attention before citizens in 10 states cast their votes – after primaries in Arizona, Michigan, and Washington, of course.

Here’s what to expect Wednesday in Arizona’s debate:

Immigration: Perhaps the hot-button issue in Arizona, expect the debate to focus on immigration early and often. The candidates will likely have to defend their own positions regarding immigration as well as address the unique developments in Arizona itself.

Indeed, Arizona and its polarizing, audacious Governor Jan Brewer have been in the national limelight for some time now, given Brewer’s support for controversial immigration legislation aimed at curbing the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. The legislation, however, is vilified by civil rights and ethnic groups as sanctioned racial profiling. A more complex but related issue is the potentiality that Arizona is interfering in a federal matter – immigration is constitutionally the purview of the federal government. The candidates will almost certainly have to speak to that dynamic.

With regard to the candidates themselves, Romney has already endured some heat on the immigration issue from the Latino community and has been forced to address the alleged hiring of illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, Gingrich freely supports a robust deportation policy deeply unpopular with the Latino community. Expect these issues to rematerialize.

Contraception and Gay Marriage: Although the majority of the electorate is focused on economic issues, particularly jobs, far more questions will be geared towards divisive social issues like contraception and gay marriage than in earlier debates. 

Contraception will certainly be discussed, given the recent coverage of Susan G. Komen’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood and the contentious Obama proposal for parochial churches and hospitals to provide free contraception. The GOP candidates, however, should welcome the pivot, Santorum in particular, given the consistent strategy of touting his historical social conservatism, but also Romney, whose dour economic predictions are seemingly belied by recent unemployment numbers. Indeed, it will be a crucial opportunity for the former Massachusetts governor, oft maligned as a Massachusetts moderate, to convince voters of his conservatism beyond the economic realm.

The candidates will probably be questioned on their gay marriage views. The issue has exploded across national airwaves as of late: Washington state became the seventh state to legalize gay marriage, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure and a federal appeals court in California ruled Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, unconstitutional. All the Republican candidates have voiced their opposition to gay marriage, so the recent developments across the nation with regard to same-sex marriage will compel them to articulate their views and address how they would contend with the slew of state gay marriage activity.

Mud Slinging: The primary has been far from civil thus far, but as winter melts into spring with no candidates, not even the dead-revived-dead-revived-dead Gingrich, indicating any intention of dropping out, the attacks will only increase in frequency and severity. Even more portentous for the current crop is the widespread notion that the candidates are subpar and lack any real chance of unseating Obama. The call for an alternative, particularly Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels or Christie, has amplified in the last several weeks. The candidates will need to bolster their standing among the party elite and their deep-pocketed friends to have a real chance at securing the nomination.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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