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CNN Arizona GOP Presidential Debate – A Grand Canyon of Uncertainty

If past history is a guide, a Republican presidential debate a month and a half after the Iowa caucuses shouldn’t really offer much more than pure entertainment value, as the nominating contests in recent memory had all but been settled by this time on the primary calendar.

But 2012 is not your typical year, and this has not been your usual presidential race with the establishment’s chosen candidate (in this case, Mitt Romney) struggling to sustain momentum after doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Conservatives and Tea Partiers have had issues with the former Massachusetts governor all along, and even a fairly healthy win in Florida could not provide him with the credibility that he would’ve wanted.

Such was setting for the 20th presidential debate (not counting forums, of course) in Mesa, Arizona, sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona. CNN’s John King moderated the debate – yes, the same John King whose back practically melted from the heat generated by the audience breathing down his neck last month in South Carolina – but more on that later.

There was one discernible difference right from the start of this debate: the candidates were all seated on Wednesday night – no more staring each other down on distant lecterns. Now, they have to sit at the same table!

Obviously the biggest single story going into the Arizona event was the recent rise of Rick Santorum after key wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Santorum has taken the lead in recent national polls, buoyed by support from conservatives who remain unsettled with Romney’s seemingly ever-evolving principles.

The frenzy of late over Santorum has leveled off the polls in Arizona and Michigan, with the mainstream media picking at the former Pennsylvania senator like vultures on a carcass. As would be expected, any candidate who has a tendency to delve into controversial issues with positions that differ from the Hollywood left’s version of “correct” American culture, should expect some resistance.

Add in the Obama administration’s recent insurance mandate/birth control flare-up, and you’ve got a perfect storm waiting for Santorum. Wednesday night would be a major test for him.

Memories, like the corners of our minds

Many have said that there have been too many debates, and that drawing out the campaign season will ultimately end up costing the GOP in November -- but there’s no question that the debates have produced a number of memorable moments that will go down in political lore as having made a real difference in the outcome.

Here are just a few of those difference-makers off the top of my head (and paraphrasing, of course):

Rick Perry’s brain freeze. The Texas governor was never completely comfortable with the off-the-cuff nature of televised debates, and his candidacy (and perhaps political legacy) was permanently scarred when he couldn’t remember which three federal departments that he would eliminate if elected president.

Herman Cain’s 9-9-9. Before rumors of extra-marital dalliances (and his own ineptitude on foreign policy) brought Cain’s candidacy down, he was red hot with conservative voters due to his second-to-none rhetorical talents and his catchy 9-9-9 tax reform plan. The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO used the presidential debates to take his turn as “flavor of the month,” and a good portion of the reason why is because his signature issue was catchy – kind of like the price of a pizza (which one of his opponents also pointed out).

Gary Johnson’s “shovel-ready” jobs. The former New Mexico governor (and staunch libertarian) was only “allowed” to participate in two debates, but he made the most of his opportunity to join all of the “mainstream” candidates on stage, throwing out the catchy line, “My neighbor’s dogs have produced more shovel ready jobs than Barack Obama has created in over two years.” Johnson’s stance on abortion likely would’ve prevented him from going far in the GOP primaries, but it certainly can be said that he deserved more exposure in the debates than he received.

Jon Huntsman cites Curt Cobain. Huntsman came into the Republican race already a couple steps behind, dragging the dead weight of his service in the Obama administration with him wherever he went. As a result, you get the sense that he was never taken seriously, despite an overall conservative record and a position most definitely outside the establishment. But he also had a flare for saying odd things, such as bringing up the late Curt Cobain (yes, the drug addicted rock singer who committed suicide with a shotgun) in one of the debates, trying to make a point about Mitt Romney’s “No Apology” book. Odd, indeed – and not many people “got it,” either.

The “bet.” Of all the candidates in the GOP race, it can be said that none could get under Mitt Romney’s skin better than Rick Perry did. The two of them nearly came to blows during the infamous Las Vegas “fight night” debate in October, and then Romney again put his foot in his mouth when offering to “bet” Rick Perry $10,000 that his book didn’t say what Perry was insisting that it did. This moment alone likely had little overall effect on the outcome, but it helped reinforce the idea that Romney is out-of-touch with the vast majority of Americans.

Bachmann vs. Pawlenty. This one happened so early on in the process that few people likely remember it, but in the two Iowa debates prior to the state’s famous straw poll last August, the two Minnesota candidates went out of their way to prove that “Minnesota nice” may apply to the population’s social code, but it definitely doesn’t apply to its political figures. Pawlenty tried to squelch Bachmann’s momentum before the straw poll. He failed, and then dropped out.

Finally, Gingrich vs. King. No single moment in all the debates was as significant as the one last month in South Carolina, where Newt Gingrich turned on CNN’s John King for asking him about his marital dirty laundry as revealed by his ex-wife. The audience gave Gingrich a standing ovation (which he’d also experienced a couple days prior after a confrontation with Fox News’s Juan Williams), and voters reacted accordingly. Gingrich resoundingly defeated Romney in the primary, and the entire course of the race changed, revealing a weakened frontrunner.

Would there be a similar moment in the Arizona debate with King again as moderator?

No. For the most part, Wednesday night was devoid of real fireworks, and showed a sense of “maturity” that’s been absent in some of the more recent versions. Maybe it’s because Newt Gingrich isn’t so outwardly angry anymore – or maybe it’s just because they hadn’t shared a debate stage in four weeks and were simply… tired.

Romney up, Santorum down

With the premise that no one “wins” or “loses” these debates, I’d have to say that Mitt Romney did the best job of shoring up his candidacy in Wednesday night’s event. From the start, he looked strong, articulated his positions (even if they’re as hollow as bird bones), and appeared very presidential.

In contrast, Rick Santorum had what was possibly his worst debate “performance” of the campaign season, appearing to waver on defending some of his past votes (such as for No Child Left Behind and funding for Title X) and lacked the overwhelming sense of self-confidence that he possessed when he was the one standing in the relative anonymity at the end of the row of candidates.

It’s not that Santorum was terrible – far from it. It’s just that Romney was much better.

And Ron Paul didn’t help Santorum much by all-but calling him a “fake” and holding out the senator’s voting record vs. campaign rhetoric as examples of what’s wrong in Washington. More on this later, too.

Romney was particularly effective in bringing up the “specter” – forgive the pun – of Santorum’s support for fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter over now-Senator Pat Toomey in 2004. “If not for your support for Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in 2004, we might not have Obamacare today,” Romney proffered with a sly grin on his face.

Santorum didn’t look prepared for this line of attack, and Romney didn’t stop there. Mitt pointed out that Specter’s win and subsequent defection to the Democrats provided them with the necessary cloture vote in the Senate to ultimately pass Obamacare – tortured logic, perhaps, but still somewhat true.

Santorum replied that he supported Specter at the time because of upcoming Supreme Court appointments (who would receive Specter’s support as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee), but the explanation fell flat.

An “oops” moment if there ever was one.

The same could be said for Santorum’s somewhat flimsy elucidations on why he voted for George W. Bush’s big government “No Child Left Behind” law, and for Title X funding (which feeds federal money to Planned Parenthood, amongst other notorious things) – all of which drew boos from the audience.

Santorum says it was like being part of a “team” in going along with legislation. He’s right, and as a member of the Senate, sometimes you’re forced into such choices – but it still looks terrible.

One final note – he said, once again, that he would balance the federal budget without cutting anything from the military (to be fair, Romney did too). How is that possible? You simply cannot make a credible argument that the federal government’s debt problems can be addressed irrespective of foreign policy and the military. With a solid majority of Americans agreeing that the Iraq War was a mistake, I don’t understand this line of argument of behalf of the “hawk” contingent of GOP candidates.

Are these fatal problems for Santorum? Not likely. But without further debates to try and change these impressions – and a relative lack of money to steer public opinion through TV ads – it could squelch some of the senator’s momentum heading into Michigan and Arizona’s primaries, and Super Tuesday on March 6.

Maybe Santorum should reconsider his position on more debates – and seek to have more of them.

A Romney-Paul Axis?

As the candidate in the race who really doesn’t have much to lose (because deep down, he acknowledges that he can’t win), Ron Paul is free to criticize whomever he chooses, and withhold any bombs from those whom he may still disagree, but doesn’t want to damage.

In that sense, Paul has been curtly critical of Rick Santorum and rarely mentions anything about Mitt Romney – and to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich. Paul has questioned Gingrich’s version of his leadership accomplishments in the past, but generally doesn’t bother with the former Speaker.

Similarly, Paul almost seems to go out of his way not to attack Romney, even though Mitt’s big government record would violate Paul’s strict constitutionalism.

Could there be something in the works there?

At this point, it’s hard to imagine Paul granting an outright endorsement to any of his competitors. The best they can probably hope for would be an agreement not to run as a third-party candidate. But what if Sen. Rand Paul was being bandied about as a potential VP candidate – in return for Ron Paul’s nod of approval?

No, not delving into conspiracy theories here – but it does seem strange that Paul appears to have a special disdain for Santorum and no one else.

Syria and the Middle East – Like Herding Cats

With the considerable turmoil going on in the Middle East, it was inevitable that the president’s role as Commander in Chief would come up on Wednesday night. It certainly did, and the candidates were asked to expound on how they would handle the deteriorating situation in Syria as well as the threat posed by Iran.

To sum up, Gingrich, Romney and Santorum: Israel is our ally; Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon – it would be the end of the world; we need to get tough on Syria; Obama’s the problem, because he’s weak. As Gingrich said, “With this administration, as long as you’re an enemy of America, you’re safe.”

Paul was the only dissenter. “I’ve tried the moral argument and the constitutional argument, and they haven’t gone over – but there’s an economic argument as well. We’ve spent $4 trillion on the Middle East, and what has it got us? We don’t have the money to do these things anymore… I’ll win this argument on the economics. We’re destroying our currency and we have a financial crisis on our hands.”

It’s not a message that the hawks want to hear, but short of committing the U.S. military to Syria or these other hot spots, what truly can be done in today’s economic climate?

Paul in a different body

Paul remains the only Republican candidate who consistently talks about the limits that the Constitution imposes on executive power, as well as the extent that the federal government can delve into private matters such as birth control, etc…

These protestations are made from a 76-year-old, physically frail man with a high-pitched voice. As I’ve said in the past, what if you had a candidate who looked like Mitt Romney saying these same things? Physical stature shouldn’t matter in politics at this level – but it does.

Here’s hoping that Paul’s constitutional message continues to be articulated – and maybe in the future, his arguments can be adopted by a candidate who is a bit more “presidential” in appearance and manner. It’s something that the Republican Party desperately needs – an alternative voice to big government and a foreign policy based on bravado and unrealistic expectations (in terms of political and social change) of American military might.

Gingrich… is he still around?

For a man with so much at stake in this debate, Newt Gingrich was a virtual no-show. True, CNN’s John King didn’t really offer up anything that could get the former Speaker riled up, but in the relatively few opportunities he got to speak, Gingrich didn’t “fight” very hard.

He clearly wanted to talk about his energy proposals, and on this issue, he’s definitely the one who’s most believable. If someone other than Obama is elected later this year, you could easily see Gingrich in an energy-policy related role.

Other than that, the damage inflicted by Romney’s carpet-bombing ad campaigns has already been done. Gingrich won’t get a third chance to rise – with no more debates on the horizon (there is one scheduled for the third week in March, but will it happen?) and no compelling “theme” to his candidacy, there’s just not much that’s left for him.

Michigan and Arizona… could decide the outcome of the GOP race

It’s hard to predict how Wednesday night’s debate will affect the vote in Michigan and Arizona. Santorum has been polling strong in Michigan, but Romney is maintaining his hold on the Grand Canyon State.

If Michigan goes to Santorum, it’s hard to see how Romney would be able to recover from the loss. Conservatives still don’t trust him, and there’s nothing he can do to convince otherwise the sizeable faction of Republicans who see him as an ideological “chameleon” (thanks, Jon Hunstman).

If the candidates should split the states, and Gingrich pulls out a few victories in the South on Super Tuesday, it’s even harder to predict how the race will end up.

We’d all better hope that Sarah Palin is right in saying that a prolonged GOP race will help conservatives – because it looks like that’s exactly where we’re headed.

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Ron Paul Frail?

Why don't you take the bike riding challenge he gave to the other candidates.110 degree Houston is a swell place to get those toxins out.Clears the mind.Oh by the way,the reason Paul is attacking Santorum is because he wants to bump him out.He has run negative ads on Romney as well,just State specific.

Ron Romney and Mitt Paul

Ron Paul and Mitt Romney ... Two phony "conservatives" who think they can hoodwink the base.  Not this time, boys ... Screw both of you!

Ron Paul Surge

It was refreshing to see that all the candidates had a chance to speak and questioned.  The message of Liberty is being spread and becoming popular.  However, the true meaning and definintion according to the founding fathers and our Constitution is held and preached by non other - Dr. Ron Paul.  Consistent!  Nothing more to say.  He will not flip flop, change his priorities or lie to sway your vote.  Truely ideal President material.

Describe Yourself in One Word: CONSERVATIVE

Does anyone find it strange after all this back and forth on past records, that when the 4 candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word, not a single one used the word that I would have used to describe myself:


This was a huge missed opportunity. Had any of them used this word, it would have been a knockout punch.

Why they didn't is testimony to what's wrong with the current struggle within the GOP. Personalizing politics vs adhering to a CONSERVATIVE VISION FOR AMERICA.

I doubt if Sarah Palin would have made this mistake.

AZ. Debate

No mention of the present gas crisis, it was like it was a imposed avoidance but wait who is going to speak on that subject tonight? Why the unenlightened one aka the Fraud in the WH and we will hear about the magic bullet we do not have, "again". More inane subjectivity and avoidance, irresponsibility of this last three years and the futility using GW for a punching bag for all the inept ignorance of a socialist agenda that is coming apart at the seams....Ask youself, if you can already see, touch, feel and hear what you already know is the problem, would you vote for four more years of this increasing oppression or would you like to get on with capitalism, a free market and a thriving private sector and a much smaller, more affordable fed, state and city government?

This analysis is hogwash

Mr. Rendall, only those who are either daft or wholly uninformed and swayed by media propaganda will find much useful in your comments.  Your ridiculous statement regarding Ron Paul that "as the candidate in the race who really doesn’t have much to lose (because deep down, he acknowledges that he can’t win)" destroys any credibility your opinions may have had...Ron Paul himself addressed this misperception being touted by the media during the Arizona debate.  Furthermore, Ron Paul is second in delegates to Romney.  Newt and Santorum actually finish in 3rd and 4th place.  I'm sick and tired of reading all this anti-Ron Paul filth.  It's an insult to intelligence, not to mention honesty and journalistic integrity.  Your comments made under the heading "Paul in a different body" are the truest indication you could give of your immaturity and the underlying reason(s) why supposed "conservatives" are sellouts to the very moral decay that they claim to be a leftist disease.  You should be ashamed of yourself.

It's not a fashion show for your information..

It's his message we need to worry about, Ron Paul is the only cadidate that has the back bone to speake what he speaks our forefathers would be poud of this man...Our   forefathers didn't fight and die for freedomso that ourGoverment could prvide it's subjects with housing,food,transportation and health care..They who bravely signed their name to the Declaration of Indendencethereby signing thir own death warrants...

    Our forefathers pledged their lives and fortunes to fight and defeat the world’s mightiest army and give birth to America. Our victory over King George was the greatest military upset in the annals of human history.

Ron Paul 2012

Spewing more mind control on Con HQ

"Ron Paul can't win, Ron Paul can't win..."  Is that all you dwarves can spew?  It's sick.  Your mind control is sick.

Into that self fullfilling prophesy I see.  Well I voted for him in Michigan already.