The debate (comes) as yet another pivot point approached in a campaign that already has had more than its share of them. With a decision by Romney, Santorum and Paul to pull out of another joint event that had been set for Atlanta, there were indications this debate could be the last.
What a shame if that holds true. Nothing that I can recall in 40 years of observing politics has so clearly exposed the worst of a political party and its presidential candidates to so stark and shocking a degree as these Republican debates.
Plus it's been the best reality teevee ever.
(T)he big question in tonight's debate will be whether and how Rick Santorum addresses questions about his religious agenda—particular his warning about Satan's attack on America. That might make Republicans uncomfortable, but this is the party they created, and it's not like Mitt Romney hasn't been doing it too.
As ABC's Rick Klein notes, today is Ash Wednesday. Santorum has been wearing ash on his forehead today, although Newt Gingrich hasn't. I suspect Santorum won't wear it during the debate, but it would be a striking visual if he were to do so.
Mitt Romney hopes to put his tax plan at the center of the debate, but his back-to-back gaffes (saying that cutting spending hurts the economy, and using the language of Occupy Wall Street to describe his tax plan), could haunt him.
While Arizona -- and Super Tuesday's bonanza of primaries -- are also at stake, it's all about Michigan for the twin front-runners. Whichever man wins the Wolverine State gets the most momentum and the most media buzz. Romney simply cannot afford to lose one of his many 'home' states, and Santorum will fade away if he fails to finish at least an Iowa-like second.
While some public polls show a close race in Arizona, Romney's campaign seems confident of winning the state's primary next week, so much so that it hasn't aired any television commercials to date.
But the former Massachusetts governor faces an unexpectedly strong challenge in his home state of Michigan, where Santorum is hoping to spring an upset. Santorum's candidacy has rebounded in the two weeks since he won caucuses in Minnesota, Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri on the same day.
The result is a multimillion-dollar barrage of television commercials in Michigan in which the candidates and their allies swap accusations in hopes of tipping the race.
A victory in Michigan -- no matter who claims it -- would also provide momentum for the 10 primaries and caucuses a week later on Super Tuesday. In all, 518 Republican National Convention delegates are at stake between Feb. 28 and March 6, three times the number awarded in the states that have voted since the beginning of the year. It takes 1,144 to win the nomination.
The only reason it is still close is because Gingrich continues to split the 'Not Romney' vote. As Harold Cook observes:
(I)t wouldn't surprise me if Romney calls Gingrich every night, promising him the VP slot if he stays in, and Santorum calls Gingrich every night, promising the same slot if he withdraws.
Which man speed-dials Gingrich the most over the next week -- or two -- depends on what happens tonight, and at the Michigan polls next Tuesday.
Update (Thursday morning):
Maybe it was the fact that the candidates were forced to sit in an odd, uncomfortable configuration. Or, maybe it was that after twenty of these debates, these four candidates are just really tired of the routine. Or, maybe it was the Arizona sun that sapped the candidates of the energy and verve they have shown in previous debates.
Whatever it was, this final - maybe - GOP primary debate was not a particularly strong one for any candidate. It generated a lot of light, but very little heat. And, it did produce one sure loser: Rick Santorum.
Whatever momentum Santorum had came to a screeching halt in tonight's debate. Romney lured Santorum time and again into defending his record in Washington. And, Santorum took the bait - responding to his attacks with process arguments and Washington gobbleygook speak.
Example: Romney attacks Santorum for his record on earmarks and Congress' voracious appetite for spending. Santorum's response: "What happened the - the 12 years I was in the United States Senate, we went from the debt to GDP ratio, which is now over 100 percent. When I came to the Senate it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate it was 64 percent of GDP."
Instead of turning Romney's attacks into an opportunity to get on the offense and back on message, Santorum spent his time explaining - and explaining - and explaining.
Santorum has spent the last couple of weeks portraying himself as an outsider. He undid all of that work in tonight's debate.