From the outset of Wednesday night's debate in Arizona, it was a Rick Santorum v. Mitt Romney battle.
The first 45 minutes of debate was dominated by candidates jockeying to defend their title of “fiscal conservative,” but Romney and Santorum continued to clash on the issues of earmarks, auto bailouts, and women’s health care. This was the last debate before the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Tuesday, and the last opportunity the candidates had to highlight their policy differences and appeal to Republican voters in both states. Aside from the winners and losers within the Republican field, what did tonight mean for President Barack Obama? Whoever the candidate becomes this November, the debate on Wednesday highlighted several issues that Obama can draw strength from in the general election.
The first is an obvious issue in a state where immigrants make up a third of the population: immigration and border security. While white Republican primary voters may love to hear talk of fence-building and self deportation, the candidates will have a hard time winning over Latino votes when it turns to a national race. Romney called Arizona a “model for dealing with illegal immigration” and talked about requiring employers to e-verify workers before they are hired, while Santorum emphasized giving law enforcement more leeway to “do their job.” None of these policies are popular among Latino voters (Arizona SB 1070 most recently created a massive uproar last year). Of course, if the eventual candidate chooses Senator Mark Rubio (R-Fla.) as a running mate (and they would be stupid not to), it would certainly change the conversation. Even with a Rubio entrance, however, the Republican candidate will have an uphill battle amongst Latino voters.
As arcane as it seems, women’s health is going to continue to be a huge issue until November thanks to debate over the past year surrounding the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and more recent of course the controversy over requiring employers to provide women access to contraceptives.
Newsflash to the GOP candidates: all women need health care. Liberal women, moderate women, and conservative women. Most of them have used contraceptives in their life. And most importantly, women outvote men. Women will be fired up in this election, and if Obama prevents the GOP to reframe this as a religious issue, as they tried to do in tonight's debate when asked about birth control, he will dominate the women’s vote which is so vital to winning the White House. There has been discussion particularly about how Rick Santorum will struggle with women voters, but these issues will hurt each of the GOP candidates.
The second half of the debate was predominately filled with hawkish rhetoric surrounding Iran, Syria, and the Middle East. While hard-line stances of nuclear weapons and military issues are vital for Republican voters – and national safety is always an issue for Americans at large – after over a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are not eager to see us jump into another war in the Middle-East. After listening tonight, it seems that if Santorum had his way, we’d be at war with Iran, Syria, and a dozen other countries. And under Romney we would be arming “Arab groups” to fight against Syria. Beyond the war-friendly rhetoric, the candidates were full of incorrect information regarding national security (yes, Obama did impose sanctions and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down). Obama can successfully fire back with hard-line stances against nuclear weapons, but win points for not running headfirst into another decade-long, Middle East war as it appears many GOPers do. Plus, he can always bring up that Osama bin Laden thing.
Though Romney has been challenged as a flip-flopper, Santorum tonight was the one who struggled to prove any kind of consistency (voting for No Child Left Behind, good vs. bad earmarks, raising the debt ceiling...) Whether Santorum continues his surge and captures Arizona and Michigan or the establishment kicks in to hand the more nationally favored Romney the nomination, the GOP will have a tough race come November. In the meantime, can someone teach Rick Santorum the difference between a noun and an adjective?
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