Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich face off Wednesday evening in Arizona for their last primary debate before Super Tuesday.
Initially, the four remaining Republican presidential candidates were scheduled to hold two more debates before March 6, when the delegates of 10 states will be for grabs. After Santorum, Paul and Romney pulled out of a debate in Georgia on March 1, however, the debate schedule was cleared until the majority of the primaries are over.
The next primaries will be in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, and all four candidates have a stake in winning these crucial states before the Super Tuesday rush. For Santorum, it's a question of keeping up the pace. The former Pennsylvania senator swept Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri the same month that he was revealed to be the de facto winner of the Iowa caucus in January.
But in a race where a series of candidates have emerged to challenge erstwhile frontrunner Mitt Romney, Santorum's surge could easily turn out to be as fleeting as that of Newt Gingrich or even Herman Cain before him. For Santorum to win big in Arizona and Michigan, and to sweep Super Tuesday, he needs to prove that he can do more than give lip service to social conservative ideals: he needs to prove he can handle the economic and foreign policy responsibilities of the presidency as well.
For Mitt Romney, meanwhile, this debate is his last chance to re-establish himself as the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. Even after his big wins in Nevada, Florida and New Hampshire, Romney still struggles to convince American voters that he has presidential qualities beyond business know-how and general electability. To recover his lead, he will need to present a more passionate and ideologically driven persona to viewers, one that will inspire them rather than simply ask them to take his candidacy for granted.
Ron Paul's goal is somewhat different. Arizona and Michigan aren't his immediate concerns. The libertarian congressman has made it clear that he will be focusing on collecting as many delegates as he can from the caucus states, and that means sticking to his message as clearly and as eloquently as possible. Since his rhetoric is markedly different from the other candidates already, all the occasionally long-winded candidate needs to do during the Arizona debate is stick to his points and limit his responses in order to make a good impression.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, needs to bring everything he can to tonight's debate. The former speaker won South Carolina, the state that has determined the GOP nominee every election year since Reagan, but has yet to make a dent in almost any other state. For Gingrich to recover all the momentum he lost after the Florida primary, he needs to abandon the backbiting tactics he's employed over the last few debates and return to the masterful debating persona he's perfected over the years, a knowledgeable, nuanced and political savvy.
The International Business Times will be live-blogging the Arizona 2012 Republican debate on this page starting at 8 p.m. EST, so be sure to refresh the page frequently. Be sure to check back afterward for post-debate analysis.
10:02 p.m.: Santorum gets the last word: electability. We're going to be running against a president who has the national media behind him, he argues, as well as all the money he didn't have to spend during the primary race. America needs someone who can do a lot with a little, and run his candidacy on a shoestring. Santorum believes he is the man for that job.
10:01 p.m.: Romney finally says that his background and skills are essential to changing America, and says he wants voters to know that he has the passion, the skill and the commitment to win and govern.
10:00 p.m.: Romney skirts the question at first by enumerating what he feels America needs, and King calls him on it. Romney retorts, You get to ask the questions you want--I get to give the answers I want.
9:59 p.m.: Gingrich says the frontrunner overload is due to the fact that the American people are searching for real answers, not rhetoric. He is someone who can get it done, not just describe it on the campaign trail.
9:58 p.m.: Ron Paul feels that the misperception lies not with the people, but with the press. It's the perpetration of the myth by the media that I can't win! he says.
9:57 p.m.: John King brings up the volatility of the Republican race so far, noting how many frontrunners the primary season has boasted. What do the candidates feel is the biggest misconception of them by American voters?
9:56 p.m.: Paul goes after Rick Santorum for his earlier excuse that he backed No Child Left Behind because he wanted to be a team player. It isn't the oath to our party [that we swear when we're elected], he tells the former Pennsylvania senator. It's the oath to our office.
9:55 p.m.: Paul says Gingrich is headed in the right direction, but doesn't go far enough. He argues that the government has no business being involved in education at all.
9:53 p.m.: Gingrich admits that Obama had courage to advocate charter schools, but says America has still bought three mistakes: that the teachers union cares about protecting the kids (when they really care about protecting bad teachers), that an emphasis on kids' self-esteem is more important than teaching them to excel, and that the bureaucratization of public schooling is a good way to approach education reform.
9:49 p.m: Romney says he was the first governor to enforce school testing and requiring students to have passing grades in order to graduate. He claims Massachusetts has the best schools in the country, and says that putting the kids first and the teachers [unions] behind is the key to successful educational reform.
9:48 p.m.: Santorum admits that voting for No Child Left Behind was going against the principles I believe in, saying he decided to take one for the team. Politics is a team sport, folks, he says. He believes that both the federal and the state governments should get out of the education business and bring it back to the local communities.
9:47 p.m.: The next question again comes from an audience member: What is your stance on education reform and the No Child Left Behind Act?
9:45 p.m.: Paul openly abandons a constitutional argument for an economic one, saying that needless intervention overseas will end up bankrupting the country.
9:44 p.m.: The former Massachusetts governor argues that if the U.S. supports rebels on the ground and imposes sanctions, the Syrian government will fall. Romney also calls Obama's dealing of Iran his most serious failure.
9:42 p.m.: Gingrich and Romney argue that going after Syria is striking a blow against Iran as well, since Syria is that country's key ally in the Middle East. They have a leader in Syria who's in real trouble, Romney says, and we've got to grab onto that.
9:39 p.m.: John King tries to steer the candidates toward Syria, asking whether the U.S. should support the people's rebellion. But Santorum goes right back to Iran, arguing that Obama is encouraging the most prolific proliferation of power in the world in his passivity towards Iran.
9:38 p.m.: If America is determined to go to war, a move Paul calls risky and reckless, the least he asks is that the people are asked about it, and that it is brought to Congress to make a declaration of war. People are gonna die! he says. At least get a declaration of war! He also argues that sanctions make no difference, pointing out how little good they did in combating Fidel Castro in Cuba.
9:37 p.m.: Paul vehemently disagrees. There's no evidence that they have [nuclear weapons], Paul says, but I think what we are doing is encouraging them to have a weapon.
9:35 p.m.: Santorum agrees with Romney's position. He points out that he pushed for a bill back in 2008 that would have imposed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear programs, a position President Bush, Obama and Joe Biden opposed. If you want to know what foreign policy position to take, he argues, see what position Biden takes and then go in the opposite direction. You'll be right every time!
9:34 p.m.: We must not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, Romney adds. If we do, the world will change, America will be at risk, and someday, those nuclear weapons will be used.
9:33 pm.: Gingrich says he can't imagine why Gen. Dempsey would ever say that Iran is a rational actor on the world stage. I'm inclined to believe dictators, Gingrich says of Ahmadinejad. I believe that it's dangerous not to.
9:32 p.m.: An audience member asks the next question: What will the candidates do about the nuclear threat from Iran?
9:30 p.m: Santorum continues to have concerns over certain roles for women on the front lines, although he also says that, like Newt Gingrich, he doesn't want social engineers to complicate the matter.
9:28 p.m.: I don't like to think of people in groups, Paul says in his response to the Pentagon question. People have rights, not groups. He warns of the possibility of a draft, and says that both men and women should be removed from the front lines. Paul believes in the just war theory, in which a war must consistently be viewed morally justifiable in order for it to continue.
9:27 p.m.: Gingrich calls King's query a misleading question in the modern era, saying that women will be in danger regardless of whether they are on the front lines or simply driving the truck. He believes that the decision should be left up to military commanders, not social engineers like the Obama administration. He then slams Obama for his policies overseas: I believe that this is the most dangerous president on national security in American history!
9:26 p.m.: Romney says that the military has enough on-the-ground knowledge to know what it's doing by sending women closer to the front lines. I believe women have the capacity to serve... in positions of responsibility, he says. Romney knows the daughter of a friend who is currently in the military, and says her father gets far more emotional than she does about the dangers she faces.
9:24 p.m.: King broaches the next topic: the Pentagon plans to open up a lot of new jobs to women, bringing them closer and closer to the front lines. Do the candidates support that initiative?
9:22 p.m.: The candidates are asked to describe themselves in one word. Paul: consistent. Santorum: courage. Romney: resolute. Gingrich: cheerful.
9:19 p.m.: I voted in 1986 for the bill that was supposed to solve all this, Gingrich says. He now argues that the best way to counter illegal immigration to go after the problems one step at a time, including separate initiatives to increase border security and to fund a fence that will be implemented over several years.
9:17 p.m.: King asks: What about someone who hires a housemaid who turns out to be an illegal immigrant? Should they be sanctioned, too? Rick Santorum says that he wouldn't take it that far, only asking large-scale employers to use E-Verify.
9:15 p.m.: An Arizona sheriff has said that it's garbage for the government not to arrest illegal immigrants that are already in the country. Romney, however, continues to defend his self-deportation idea, pushing for employers to use E-Verify and for those who don't use E-Verify to be sanctioned, just like you do if you don't pay your taxes. He also advocates building a border fence and beefing up border security.
9:13 p.m.: King brings up former candidate Rick Perry, who advocated putting up double ladders as a fence across the U.S.-Mexican border. Gingrich says that he would push for a border fence and increase border security: This is a doable thing.
9:12 p.m.: King mentions Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's statement that conservative rhetoric on immigration can often be harsh and intolerable. Gingrich says he can't be sure what comments Rubio is referencing, but slams President Obama for a speech he made about immigration in El Paso that he calls totally demagogic.
9:11 p.m.: Paul says a border fence, which will cost millions of dollars, may not a good investment. Neither, however, is foreign spending. If we stopped being so concerned about the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Paula argues, maybe we would actually have the resources we need to take on illegal immigration.
9:09 p.m.: An audience member claims that Arizona has come under attack by the federal government just for securing our foreign border. What will the candidates do to protect and police that border if they are elected?
9:08 p.m.: Romney counters Santorum's criticism of Romneycare by saying that the Obama national health-care overhaul would never have gone through if Santorum hadn't endorsed Arlen Specter for a Senate seat, allowing Specter to cast the deciding vote on Obama's healthcare plan.
9:07 p.m.: Santorum says Romney has no right to keep claiming credit for things he's supposed to do, like balancing the budget in his own state when he was governor of Massachusetts. Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for ten years, he says. Does that make him qualified to be president? I don't think so!
9:06 p.m: Santorum fights back by bringing up Romneycare, saying that Romney's form of government coercion was far worse than Title X. Romney points that Santorum endorsed him back in 2008, after Romneycare was already in place, and continues to insist that he will repeal Obamacare if elected.
9:04 pm.: There's always an excuse, Paul chuckles. He continues to argue that the government should not be spending any money on birth control: I don't see that in the Constitution! Romney echoes his argument against Santorum.
9:03 p.m.: Santorum counters that he had to work with Title X because of what was attached to that initiative. He argues that he was proactive in balancing Title X with Title XX, which funds abstinence education.
9:02 p.m.: Paul goes after Planned Parenthood, arguing that if you vote for funding that organization, you are also voting for birth control pills and for abortion. Planned Parenthood should get nothing, let alone be designated how they spend [it]! he insists, before going after Santorum for supporting its Title X funding.
9:01 p.m.: We are looking at an abyss that is asking you to change what you once thought, Gingrich says, adding that all of us [on stage] are more concerned about the power of the state than they had been for years.
9:01 p.m.: Gingrich says Romney actually has advocated requiring access to birth control, but quickly abandons that point for one that Ron Paul has been making for a generation: that if you keep relying on the government to balance things and get involved, you inevitably trend toward tyranny.
8:59 p.m.: The best opportunity an individual can give to an unborn child is the opportunity to be born in a home with a mother and a father, Romney argues. He says he never advocated for religious institutions or their hospitals to be required to provide birth control to rape victims. Romney wants to help the Catholic Church stay in the adoption business, not to start advocate birth control.
8:57 p.m.: Ron Paul tells Santorum not to blame the Pill for the immorality of our society, saying social reform should never involve government intervention.
8:56 p.m.: Santorum stands by that position, saying that when children have children, the family breaks apart, while serious issues like poverty and single motherhood become epidemics. But he wants to be clear for any liberal listeners: Just because I'm talking about it, doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it. That's what you do!
8:55 p.m.: King asks Santorum to take on the birth control question, pointing out that the candidate has said that if he's elected, he will address the dangers of birth control. 8:53 p.m.: Never before have we seen such an attack on religious conscience, Romney adds, tearing into Obama for his alleged persecution of the Catholic Church.
8:52 p.m.: Gingrich is outraged by the question. He argues that during the 2008 presidential election, nobody in the elite media asked Obama why he supported infanticide, calling him the true religious extremist when it comes to questions of birth control and abortion.
8:51 p.m.: The conversation turns to social issues. Which candidate believes in birth control, and why? The audience erupts in boos.
8:49 p.m.: Ron Paul is asked whether the bailout worked or not. Paul counters that bailouts are always bad. It's like if a criminal robs a bank and he succeeds, that we should support him for what he did, Paul says. He argues that serving special interests rather than relying on the wisdom of the free market leads to catering to special interests.
8:48 p.m.: Gingrich argues that a huge portion of the American auto industry didn't need to be bailed out, and puts the blame for those who did on a management system incapable of tough decisions after years of selling out to the UAW. He then slams Obama for paying off the UAW at the expense of every bondholder, echoing Romney's statements.
8:47 p.m.: Newt Gingrich gets brought into the auto bailout debate. It's a tough one, says King. It's not a tough one, Gingrich replies.
8:46 p.m.: Romney argues that giving them [the auto companies] over to the UAW [United Automobile Workers] was wrong, but asserts that many of the companies' problems also came from their own financial mismanagement.
8:45 p.m.: Nice try there, but let's look at the facts, Romney counters. He argues that businesses need to go through managed bankruptcy and then get help getting out. No way would we allow the auto industry to implode, he asserts. He adds that the reason he supported bailing out Wall Street was because he wanted to make sure America didn't lose all our banks, not just the banks on Wall Street.
8:42 p.m.: On principle, I opposed the Wall Street bailout... I held a consistent position on the automobile bailouts, Santorum says. He argues that Romney looked to bail out Wall Street but not the automobile industry, choosing Big Business over blue collar Americans. He, at least, stood on the principle of a free market economy consistently, Santorum argues, not just when it was convenient.
8:40 p.m.: The next question is from CNN: Why was George W. Bush wrong in his efforts to save the automobile industry, and why was Obama wrong to continue to save it? The candidates are asked to give their answer as if they were talking to a worker in the automobile industry who may have kept his or her job because of that bailout.
8:37 p.m.: Santorum argues that what Romney advocates in terms of earmark reform is exactly how it worked when he was in Congress, and rejects the idea that earmarks were just ways to tack on unnecessary amendments. You're entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to misrepresent facts, he tells Romney, adding: You don't know what you're talking about.
8:35 p.m.: Romney says he would put a ban on earmarks. We'd had it with them, he tells Santorum. The earmark system is broken... while I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere.
8:33 p.m.: John King asks Santorum about the distinction between good earmarks and bad earmarks, and why he voted for some that he later opposed. Santorum counters that bad earmarks are the ones that become corrupted. There was an abuse of the process, Santorum says. Congress has a role of allocating resources when they think the government has it wrong.
8:31 p.m.: Everyone talks about managing the current government, Gingrich says, [but] the current government is a disaster! He admits that he's closer to Ron Paul than to Romney and Santorum on government reform, and says that to create a truly modern government, he argues, nearly everything must change.
8:30 p.m.: Romney considered himself a severely conservative governor when he was in Massachusetts. He points out that he balanced the budget, cut taxes, and went after illegal immigration while in office.
8:27 p.m.: Paul rejects the idea that he is ranked lower as a consistent conservative than Santorum. When it comes to fiscal matters and strict constitutionalism, Paul says, nobody is above him. And as for the ratings: Conservatives like to spend money, too!
8:25 p.m.: It's kind of cop out to compare yourself to other Congress members, Paul retorts. The American people are sick and tired of the other members of Congress, they get about a nine percent rating!
8:22 p.m.: Santorum tells Paul that he was one of the most fiscally conservative senators in Congress during his time as a Republican senator in Pennsylvania, and has one of the highest records in the National Conservative Union. He points out that Paul scores lower than he does as a traditional conservative, and argues that it's much harder to be a consistent conservative in Pennsylvania than in Texas.
8:21 p.m.: Paul goes after candidates like Santorum who claim to be fiscal conservatives when they're running for office, then abandon those principles when they're elected. He argues that saying Oh, I wanna repeal that about something like No Child Left Behind is no excuse for initially supporting it. He also goes after all candidates for advocating increased foreign aid, which he argues is a waste of money.
8:20 p.m.: King asks Ron Paul why his new ad accuses Santorum of being a fake. Ron Paul's response: Because he's a fake.
8:19 p.m.: Newt Gingrich joins the conversation. We're meeting tonight on the anniversary of George Washington's birth, he says, before looking to the Founding Fathers for guidance. He returns to the energy issue, saying it will help balance the budget and bring jobs back to America.
8:18 p.m.: There were so many misrepresentations there, it's going to take me awhile, Romney shoots back.
8:16 p.m.: Santorum counters Romney's assertion that he advocated increasing government spending by pointing out that Romney was the one who voted to raise the debt ceiling. As for his own votes on programs like No Child left Behind: Look, we all have votes that we look back on [and reconsider]. He also asserts that he never voted to raise taxes, something Romney cannot claim.
8:14 p.m.: Mitt Romney claims Santorum's history shows he likes to increase government spending, not cut it back, but quickly turns to back to the original question. I've lived balancing budgets, he says, referencing his business background. He would go through every single program, ask if America can afford it, and then ask if it's critical. He advocates sending programs like Medicare back to the states for review, and would cut back on the salaries of government employees.
8:12 p.m.: Poverty is not a disability, Santorum asserts in his argument against entitlement programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. These plans need to be transitional in nature.
8:11 p.m.: Santorum plans to reduce the debt by cutting back on ObamaCare and other entitlement programs, saying he actually [has] experience dealing with reducing the national debt. He insists, however, that he will not cut back on military spending.
8:10 p.m.: The first question comes from an audience member: What will the candidates do to tackle the national debt?
8:08 p.m.: Mitt Romney sees himself as a man who will make good on the American promise of opportunity, then quotes George Costanza: when they're applauding, stop. Newt Gingrich focuses on energy issues, saying that if he becomes president, America will never have to bow to a Saudi prince again.
8:07 p.m.: The candidates introduce themselves, with Paul and Santorum chosen first. Ron Paul is the defender of the Constitution and the champion of liberty. Rick Santorum recognizes that we have a lot of troubles, and is looking for a positive solution that includes everybody from the bottom up.
8:06 p.m.: The Arizona State University Symphonic Chorale sings the National Anthem.
8:05 p.m.: The candidates are introduced. There is Rick Santorum, the late contender, Mitt Romney, the long distance runner, Newt Gingrich, the determined challenger, and Ron Paul, the delegate hunter.
8:02 p.m.: There are no podiums tonight for the Arizona debate. Instead, CNN has placed the candidates together at a table for a more intimate setting.
7:45 p.m.: Tonight's debate will be moderated by CNN anchor John King. The debate itself will be held in the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Ariz.