Bloomberg News

Santorum, Romney to Vie for Advantage in Debate Held in Arizona

February 24, 2012

(For more campaign news, go to ELECT.)

Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are vying to define each other and gain an edge in a tightening Republican presidential race as they and two other rivals meet tonight in Arizona for a potentially crucial televised encounter.

The debate in Mesa, Arizona, marks the first time in almost a month that the candidates will face off on the same stage, and it’s also the first since Santorum usurped Romney’s perch at the top of national polls of the Republican contest.

The turn in the race has heightened the stakes in Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona, where Santorum yesterday pitched himself to voters as an anti-establishment fighter for fiscal and social conservatism, and in Michigan, where Romney tarred his challenger as a Washington insider. A Romney loss in Michigan, his boyhood home, would deal a severe blow to his campaign.

Statewide polls show a close race in Michigan and that Santorum is narrowing Romney’s edge in Arizona.

Tonight’s debate on CNN -- which will include former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas -- will be the last direct exchange among the candidates scheduled before Super Tuesday on March 6, when 11 states hold contests that should play a major role in determining who secures the Republican nomination.

Debate Stakes

For Santorum, 53, tonight is a chance to reintroduce himself to voters who may have written off his candidacy just weeks ago when he was lagging in polls and fundraising. Romney, 64, is angling to reinvigorate his bid and reiterate his campaign theme that he’s a strong and steady executive best positioned to defeat President Barack Obama in November’s election.

Gingrich, 68, is pressing for the type of strong debate performance that periodically has boosted his candidacy and that he needs now to gain some momentum heading into Super Tuesday. Paul, 76, also will be looking ahead to the March 6 contests, which include caucuses that give supporters attracted by his libertarian agenda stressing a limited federal government their best chance of accruing convention delegates.

The importance of the Michigan primary is underscored by escalating advertising by political action committees aligned with Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, or Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.

A new commercial being aired in Michigan by the Red White and Blue Fund, a super-PAC supporting Santorum, charges that Romney increased spending, taxes and fees as governor of Massachusetts and implemented a “blueprint” for the U.S. health-care law.

‘Not Much Different’

“How can Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama when, on the vital decisions, they’re not much different?” a narrator asks.

The group, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts on Santorum’s behalf, purchased an additional $600,000 in commercial time in Michigan, spokesman Stuart Roy said yesterday. That brings the super-PAC’s total expenditures on the state’s airwaves to boost Santorum to about $1.3 million, he said.

Restore our Future, the pro-Romney super-PAC, also began airing new negative ads yesterday in Michigan, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

Debt Limit

The commercial attacks Santorum for voting during his time in Congress to raise the federal debt-ceiling and for securing federal funds for the parochial spending projects known as earmarks. It also criticizes Santorum’s 2002 Senate vote to authorize ex-convicts to vote in federal elections.

Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future had spent $810,980 on broadcast television ads in Michigan as of Feb. 18, compared with what was then $262,260 by Santorum’s campaign and Red White and Blue Fund, CMAG data show.

Santorum, in remarks yesterday at a party luncheon in Phoenix, Arizona, highlighted what he termed “a track record of cutting spending and taking on the big entitlements,” of fighting “radical Islamists” and “of standing up for the basic foundational pillars of our society: faith and family.”

He drew implicit contrasts with Romney and Gingrich, calling himself an “authentic conservative” and saying: “I’m not a manager. I’m not a visionary. I’m a guy from a steel town who grew up understanding what made this country great.”

At a rally last night in Phoenix, Santorum indirectly responded to a fresh focus on a 2008 speech he gave in which he said Satan was targeting America.

“I’ll defend everything I’ll say, because it comes from here,” Santorum said, pointing to his heart. He compared his sometimes strong language to when Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, branded the former Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and was criticized for doing so.

Abortion Issue

Romney yesterday touted his commitment to socially conservative principles such as opposing abortion rights.

“My vice presidential nominee will be pro-life,” he told voters in Shelby Township, Michigan, when asked about his running-mate. “If I’m fortunate enough to become the nominee, I will also choose someone who is conservative to the core.”

He also made a rare, indirect reference to his Mormon faith, telling voters that his religion made him particularly sensitive to issues of religious tolerance.

“As someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance and religious freedom and the right to one’s own conscience, I will make sure we never again attack religious liberty in the United States of America.”

Romney’s Attack

Addressing hundreds of people who traversed snowy roads to hear him speak, Romney cast Santorum as a Washington insider who used congressional earmarks to allocate federal money for local projects in his district.

“I don’t think that’s consistent with the principles of conservatives,” he said. “I don’t think Rick Santorum’s track record is that of a fiscal conservative.”

In Michigan, where Romney’s father served as governor, Santorum’s support rose after he swept contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7 -- victories that also spurred the increase in his support nationally. Polls within the last few days in Michigan have shown a neck-and-neck race between the two.

In Arizona, Romney leads Santorum by four points, 36 percent to 32 percent, according to a CNN/Time/ORC poll released today. The Feb. 17-20 survey of likely voters in the Republican primary has an error margin of plus-or-minus 4.5 percentage points. Most other recent polls showed Romney with a larger lead.

Christie’s Comments

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of Romney’s prominent supporters among Republican officials, said an obstacle the candidate faces in attracting rank-and-file backing “is that he’s a very reserved guy.”

“And so in the time that we’re in right now, which is a very tumultuous, angry, emotional time at the moment, reserve is not necessarily what the primary electorate seems to want,” Christie said in an ad that aired last night on CNN’s ‘Piers Morgan Tonight” program.

The last debate was held on Jan 26 in Jacksonville, Florida. Romney then won Florida’s Jan. 31 primary by 14 points over Gingrich, with Santorum running a distant third.

Top Romney officials are now casting their candidate as the underdog in the Michigan race.

“Mitt Romney is the comeback kid,” said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the candidate’s state chairman.

--With assistance from Greg Giroux and Kristin Jensen in Washington and Terrence Dopp in Trenton, New Jersey. Editors: Don Frederick,

To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Phoenix, Arizona at jdavis159@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Shelby Township, Michigan at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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