Debate No. 20 may be remembered as "The Mauling in Mesa."Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney came into the final scheduled debate of the Republican Primary campaign with much to lose.
They turned it into a two-man cage-fight, pummeling each other in a verbal knock-down, drag- out, battering. The crowd cheered. The crowd booed. And the other two candidates -- Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich -- were largely left chattering on the sidelines.
It was the last time they would face each other in such a forum before the symbolically important Arizona and Michigan primaries on Tuesday. It was the last time they could take questions from a moderator together and use them to affirm themselves as conservative candidates, and use their answers like blunt weapons to bash each other.
Most importantly, it was the last time they could beat on each other face to face in what has turned into a bloody brawl for their party's nomination before the vitally important Super Tuesday primaries on March 6, when voters in 10 states cast their ballots.
Santorum may have taken the worst of it as they waded into the complicated and controversial realm of earmarks, the legislative tactic for funding specific projects. First, he stunned the audience into silence as he defended some earmarks. Then he pushed them into outright boos as he careened into the quagmire of Title X. The program is the major funding source for the family planning programs social conservatives deplore.
Santorum made them none too happy with his admission that "I have a personal moral objection" to contraception, "but I've voted for bills that included it too."
That earned him a loud boo from the audience. It got worse when Ron Paul said Santorum voted to fund Planned Parenthood.
"As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title X funding. I've always opposed Title X funding,¿ Santorum said. "But it's included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things."
The crowd started to boo again.
Finally, though, he said that if he's elected president, "I will defund Planned Parenthood; I will not sign any appropriation bill that funds Planned Parenthood."
Santorum, in turn, aimed some of his barbs at Romney, pointing out that the former Massachusetts governor sought earmarks for the Olympics in Salt Lake City when he headed the organizing committee for the games there. But the only time Romney drew boos in the two-hour slugfest was when he noted that congress approved thousands of earmarks while Gingrich was Speaker of the House.
Most important for Latinos may be what the candidates didn't say. All had waded into hot water during the race, alienating huge blocks of Hispanics with harsh immigration rhetoric as they campaigned from Iowa through Florida. Then, pushed by GOP Golden Boy (and possible vice presidential pick) Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (yes, as in one former president's brother and another's son) and other Party powerhouses, they ratcheted down on the issue.
When it came up Wednesday, in the first debate since Florida, Romney, Paul and Gingrich managed to dance away from what's been the third rail of the campaign season -- what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.
Romney put the responsibility on employers to verify the legal status of employees. Paul and Gingrich talked about how thorny the problem is, and focused on improving legal immigration.
Santorum, however, repeated his defense of Arizona-style illegal immigrant crackdown laws.
"I think what we need to do is to give law enforcement the opportunity to do what they're doing here in Arizona and what Sheriff Arpaio was doing before he ran into some issues with the federal government," he said, "which is to allow folks to enforce the law here in this country, to allow people who are breaking the law or suspicious of breaking the law to be able to be detained and deported if they're found here in this country illegally, as well as those who are trying to seek employment."
The debates have played a critical role in the primaries thus far. Newt Gingrich came from behind to win South Carolina largely thanks to his performance in the candidate forum in that state two days before the primary there. Romney, cramming for a rematch with the help of a debate coach he later fired, came back with a solid showing in Florida and turned that into a solid win in the primary there.
Wednesday's debate was just as critical for Romney and Santorum. They came into it virtually tied in the polls in Arizona and Michigan, and on the tail of a stunning triple upset by Santorum in the voting in the three previous contests. As most -- including Romney -- saw the former governor's victory in Florida as proof that he was once again "unstoppable," Santorum's victories in Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota threw the race into a free- for-all yet again.
Santorum clearly wants to build on the impression that he's the "conservative alternative" to President Barack Obama that Republican voters want. Wins in Arizona and Michigan would do that, and further erode Romney's "inevitable" image. Wins for Romney might not end the fight, but they would put him back on track, especially now that the race shifts to an expensive mode that favors the deep-pocket finances of Romney.
From here on out -- unless they change their minds and schedule another face-to-face forum -- the race goes back to the pattern of low-budget rallies and big-budget spending on campaign commercials. Then the messages will be catered to specific audiences and, if history (and the just- past Florida primary) is a guide, the campaign with the most money wins.
Source: Terra/Carlos Harrison