This is it. Tonight, it's the Rick Show.
Think of it as Primary Idol.
The latest polls put Rick Santorum and Mitt Romneyin a virtual tie in Arizona and Michigan, withNewt Gingrich and Ron Paul somewhere in the fardistance behind them. So tonight's debate in Mesais the time to shine for Santorum, the come-from-behind candidate. He's been given up for dead moretimes than Jason in any of the Halloween movies,but Santorum is the Energizer Bunny in this race -- hejust keeps on running. And tonight,basically, it's Rick's to lose.
It's the first time the candidates get to face offagainst each other after nearly a month withoutdebating. Gingrich needs the oxygen. Santorum isriding a wave. Romney needs to be tough. And, onceagain in a primary season that's seen campaignfortunes do stunning about faces based on face-to-face performances in South Carolina and Florida,this debate could be a game-changer.
This time, Latinos should definitely listen.
It's the last debate before Super Tuesday on March6, when voters in 10 states will cast theirballots. It's also the last before voters inArizona and Michigan cast theirs, next Tuesday.Losing either state would be disastrous forRomney. Michigan is where he grew up, where hisdad was an auto exec, and governor. Lose thereand, well ...
Arizona, on the other hand, is Arizona -- the coreof conservatism, a place where two-thirds of thevoters in the last election, in 2010, said theysupport the Tea Party. For Romney, who's trying toprove his conservative credentials, a win therewould be huge.
So would a loss.
Which is possible. After entering both states asthe clear front-runner, Romney has slid back intoa dead heat with Santorum. In both states. ACNN/Time/ORC International poll released Tuesdayput them in a virtual tie in Arizona, with Romneyat 36 percent to Santorum's 32 -- within thesurvey's margin of error. Gingrich and Paultrailed, at 18 and 6 percent, respectively.
A poll by The Detroit News last week actually putSantorum ahead in Michigan -- where Romney'sfather was an auto-exec and governor. There, 34percent of likely Republican primary voters saidthey supported Santorum, compared to 30 percentfor Romney. That difference, too, was within thepoll's margin of error.
So it's bound to get messy in Mesa, as both menslug it out.
Expect immigration to suddenly loom large again.How could it not? The debate is in Arizona --Ground Zero for the immigration debate. The placethat first passed a law allowing cops to stopanyone who "looks like" an illegal immigrant anddemand to see their papers.
If that wasn't enough, Arizona is now movingtoward funding its own, armed, volunteer militiaalong the border.
So, it won't be surprising at all if Santorumturns up his no-amnesty, deport-all-the-illegal-immigrants-who-are-already-here rhetoric anothernotch or two as he tries to dispose of the Mittfrom Massachusetts and prove quien es más macho inMesa.
Santorum is bound to seize the opportunity torepeat his hardline immigration stand, and try toforce Romney to explain his switch on the DREAMAct. (For those who've forgotten, Romney swore --up until he got to Florida -- to veto the billthat would offer citizenship to the children ofillegal immigrants if they completed two years ofcollege or military service. In Florida, theformer Massachusetts governor modified hisposition to say he'd support the military serviceprovision.)
The challenge will be for the candidates to betough on immigration, without seeming anti-immigrant. That has turned off Hispanics acrossthe country. And turning off Hispanics now couldcost the Republicans the election in November.
So there's a lot more at stake tonight than whowins the debate. What the candidates say tonightcould decide who Latinos vote for in November.