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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arizona Debate Preview

I'll bisect this week's analyses of each candidate with a preview of tonight's debate in Arizona. (Don't forget that Stephen Kurzy and I will bring you a LIVE BLOG tonight!) Specifically, I ask the question:

Is tonight's debate important?

It's our first debate since Florida's second, held back on January 26, nearly four weeks ago. It was the debate that we thought determined the nominee. After all, Mitt Romney, with that night's performance, all but put away red-hot Newt Gingrich, who, after clubbing Romney in the South Carolina Primary, subsequently fell apart. Romney took a commanding lead of the delegate race and dismantled his closest competitor with a barrage of negative ads. The race was over, we said.

How wrong we were. Now, four weeks later, the dynamics of the race have drastically changed. While Gingrich is, indeed, an afterthought in the current dynamics of the 2012 Republican Primary, Romney has not locked up the nomination. Rick Santorum has surged and, according to some, could even be considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Most agree the nomination is up for grabs, and there is even a scenario under which Gingrich can make a third comeback. Moreover, there's another scenario where an outside candidate jumps in by the convention, a circumstance which would be catalyzed if no current candidate can quite consolidate and excite the party for the general election against President Obama.

It's under this precarious situation and unpredictable future where one starts to understand that tonight's debate, despite being something like the 25th of the series, matters. Indeed, it matters a great deal, and here are three realistic scenarios whose existence might determine, and certainly influence, the GOP Primary's result.

1. Romney drops the ball. If Romney falters tonight, in what is the last debate before the important February 28 primaries of Michigan and Arizona, we'll see Rick Santorum win both states. The polls for the Michigan Primary show a close race. In Michigan, we've seen Santorum's 10-point lead predictably crumble into, as several polls show us, a dead heat. In Arizona, however, Romney sits pretty.

But it's Michigan, Romney's home state, which all eyes are on. The debate becomes enormously important for momentum's sake. If Romney struggles in tonight's debate and hands over a plurality of Michigan's 30 delegates, most agree he's in trouble. It'd also be a huge boon to Santorum as he leaps into a clear second place in the delegate standings and perpetuates his momentum and influx of money into a convincing Super Tuesday win.

2. Romney repeats his Florida Debates performances. Remember, we went into the Florida debates with a similar scenario. Newt Gingrich had all the momentum, and Romney's inevitability was threatened. Then, however, Romney dominated the Florida debates. Gingrich then fell apart, while Romney pulled away. If Romney wins the debate, history could repeat itself. Romney would likely win both states and pull away from the field. Moreover, with momentum regained, he'd win most states and delegates on Super Tuesday. Then, with all we've witness this month, there would be enormous pressure for the other candidates to drop out and unite the party. And you know what? Santorum would bow out and position himself for VP. Gingrich might take a week before realizing it's hopeless; after losing the next set of primaries, he'd follow Santorum out the door. That would leave Paul, who would leave after Romney clinches a majority of the delegates.

All this if Romney does what he did in Florida, and that's simply win tonight's debate. Prepare yourself for an anti-climactic finish to this nail-biting primary. If Romney wins tonight, he wins both states on Tuesday. If he wins both states on Tuesday, he wins Super Tuesday. If he wins Super Tuesday, he's the nominee.

3. Gingrich raises Hell. While many Republicans and pundits at large might disagree on how events will unfold between now and the primary, everyone is in relative agreement that there is resistance to a Romney candidacy and that Santorum's right-wing social views are not palatable to moderates, a group essential to winning a general election against the President. In sum, the above two debate scenarios notwithstanding, neither candidate is in a great position to pull away. After all, it's by no means certain that either will convincingly win the night.

The point, though, is that since neither candidate has pulled away, there is still that opening for Newt Gingrich's perfect storm. For a third scenario, imagine a perfect Gingrich tonight. If he brings his A game--a game which includes being the most articulate, engaging, angry, and bold candidate in the field--we could see the scale of momentum tip back to him as the party realizes they cannot choose either Romney and Santorum. It wouldn't be enough to win either state, but strong runners up--or even third places--would just be the beginning. You could see him finishing strongly again in Washington on March 3 and then head into a Super Tuesday--which would include a Georgia win--with a full head of steam.

Is it a longshot? Of course. But he has a puncher's chance. No one should bet their bank account on Gingrich not coming out swinging in tonight's debate. If he connects on a couple right hooks, we could be in a three-man race by Super Tuesday.

So yeah, I'd say tonight's debate is important.
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Before I wrap up, here are three short bullets on specific things to look for:

1. Can Romney look like the frontrunner again? How can he marginalize the other candidates that, truth be told, are far back in popular votes, delegate standings, fundraising ability, and national organization?

2. Gas prices! Which candidate will be the first to mention them? With the economy improving, the primary seems to have shifted the debate away from the economy over to cultural and social issues. But since most voters still, first and foremost, care about their wallets, promising lower gas prices might be the way to re-connect on the economy. Of course, gas prices are rising because Iran is saber-rattling and waxing poetic on its sovereignty, and a hawkish Republican White House would only bring further instability in the region. But still. There's always the Keystone Pipeline.

3. Since the campaign has become about social issues, can Romney get to the right of Santorum? No, that's impossible. The Pope is left of Santorum. So does Romney risk trying? If he does, it'd hurt his chances in the general. If he doesn't, it'd hurt his chances to win the nomination. Tough spot.

But fun to watch! So I hope you do. And don't forget about tonight's LIVE BLOG coverage, right here at PPFA.

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