Wednesday night, the four remaining GOP presidential candidates gather in Mesa, Arizona for the 20th and what is possibly the last GOP debate.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Originally, CNN had another debate scheduled for early March before Super Tuesday. But Mitt Romney backed out, quickly followed by Ron Paul, resulting in the debate’s cancellation. It’s completely unclear just how many contenders will be left after Super Tuesday, and whether Mitt Romney will have any incentive to continue to show up at debates.
Right now he has little need for them. As the person the others are trying to bring down, he has the most to lose. Although he’s had his debate successes, notably against Newt Gingrich in Florida and Rick Perry in Nevada, the events have also opened opportunities for rivals to soar, leading to some perilous polling moments for him. Earlier Wednesday Romney released pieces of a new tax plan, which could help keep tonight’s questions on turf that comfortable for him.
Newt Gingrich has also tried to put out some splashy releases that will bring the questioning round his way. He’s just released a 30-minute address on the subject of energy independence, and has bought TV time for the whole thing too. Given that he’s down in the polls and in danger of being dismissed as an irrelevance, it’s possible he’ll treat tonight as the fight of his life.
Meanwhile, the man who’s usurped Newt’s place could find himself in a sticky situation. Rick Santorum, who could do serious damage to the Romney campaign with a win in Michigan next Tuesday, should be salivating at this opportunity to attack Mitt Romney. However, Santorum may be distracted if the moderator, CNN’s John King, decides to ask him about some of his recent, inflammatory comments. Over the weekend, Santorum made news by alleging that President Obama adhered to a “phony theology” and that prenatal testing leads to abortions. He may even have to defend a 2008 speech in which he invoked Satan. As the Guardian outlined, and the chart below shows, the debate moderators have mostly shied away from asking about religion at the debates, but the news cycle of the last few days could change that.
The moderator will also surely be bearing in mind that it could be their last chance to do this. At the previous 19 debates, questions focused mainly on a small number of topics. The GOP candidates have fielded a lot of questions about the economy, reducing government, their records, and their conservative credentials. This time, it’s possible the moderators could shake things up with questions about the some of the juicier news stories of the day. Their locale opens up one possibility: perhaps Romney will be asked to comment on Sheriff Paul Babeu, who resigned from his position as Romney’s Arizona campaign co-chair over the weekend after an ex-boyfriend alleged that Babeu threatened to deport him if he went public about their homosexual relationship. Babeu, a known border hawk, appeared in a John McCain campaign ad in 2010 called “Complete the Danged Fence.” This could open up the hot-button topic of immigration too.
Meanwhile, social issues like contraception have been front and center lately. Tonight’s debate will be the first one since the Obama administration issued a new rule requiring almost all employers’ health care plans to include contraception coverage, with the exception that insurance companies perform this service in lieu of religiously-affiliated organizations with theological objections. It’s a subject that is likely to come up and Santorum, who just received the endorsement of Arizona Right to Life, is best positioned to benefit from voters being riled up over social issues.
The event begins at 8pm on CNN. TPM will have live coverage, analysis, and breaking news during and after the debate.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.