Debate No. 20 may be remembered as "The Mauling inMesa."
Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney came into the finalscheduled debate of the Republican Primarycampaign with much to lose.
They turned it into a two-man cage-fight,pummeling each other in a verbal knock-down, drag-out, battering. The crowd cheered. The crowdbooed. Andthe other two candidates -- Ron Pauland Newt Gingrich -- were largely left chatteringon the sidelines.
It was the last time they would face each other insuch a forum before the symbolically importantArizona and Michigan primaries on Tuesday. It wasthe last time they could take questions from amoderator together and use them to affirmthemselves as conservative candidates, and usetheir answers like blunt weapons to bash eachother.
Most importantly, it was the last time they couldbeat on each other face to face in what has turnedinto a bloody brawl for their party's nominationbefore the vitally important Super Tuesdayprimaries on March 6, when voters in 10 statescast their ballots.
Santorum may have taken the worst of it as theywaded into the complicated and controversial realmof earmarks, the legislative tactic for fundingspecific projects. First, he stunned the audienceinto silence as he defended some earmarks. Then hepushed them into outright boos as he careened intothe quagmire of Title X. The program is the majorfunding source for the family planning programssocial conservatives deplore.
Santorum made them none too happy with hisadmission that "I have a personal moral objection"to contraception, "but I've voted for bills thatincluded it too."
That earned him a loud boo from the audience.It got worse when Ron Paul said Santorum voted tofund Planned Parenthood.
"As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title Xfunding. I've always opposed Title X funding,"Santorum said. "But it's included in a largeappropriation bill that includes a whole host ofother things."
The crowd started to boo again.
Finally, though, he said that if he's electedpresident, "I will defund Planned Parenthood; Iwill not sign any appropriation bill that fundsPlanned Parenthood."
Santorum, in turn, aimed some of his barbs atRomney, pointing out that theformer Massachusettsgovernor sought earmarks for the Olympics in SaltLake City when he headed the organizing committeefor the games there. But the only time Romney drewboos in the two-hour slugfest was when he notedthat congress approved thousands of earmarks whileGingrich was Speaker of the House.
Most important for Latinos may be what thecandidates didn't say. All had waded into hotwater during the race, alienating huge blocks ofHispanics with harsh immigration rhetoric as theycampaigned from Iowa through Florida. Then, pushedby GOP Golden Boy (and possible vice presidentialpick) Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. JebBush (yes, as in one former president's brotherand another's son) and other Party powerhouses,they ratcheted down on the issue.
When it came up Wednesday, in the first debatesince Florida, Romney, Paul and Gingrich managedto dance away from what's been the third rail ofthe campaign season -- what to do with theestimated 11 million undocumented immigrantsalready here.
Romney put the responsibility on employers toverify the legal status of employees. Paul andGingrich talked about how thorny the problem is,and focused on improving legal immigration.
Santorum, however, repeated his defense ofArizona-style illegal immigrant crackdown laws.
"I think what we need to do is to give lawenforcement the opportunity to do what they'redoing here in Arizona and what Sheriff Arpaio wasdoing before he ran into some issues with thefederal government," he said, "which is to allowfolks to enforce the law here in this country, toallow people who are breaking the law orsuspicious of breaking the law to be able to bedetained and deported if they're found here inthis country illegally, as well as those who aretrying to seek employment."
The debates have played a critical role in theprimaries thus far. Newt Gingrich came from behindto win South Carolina largely thanks to hisperformance in the candidate forum in that statetwo days before the primary there. Romney,cramming for a rematch with the help of a debatecoach he later fired, came back with a solidshowing in Florida and turned that into a solidwin in the primary there.
Wednesday's debate was just as critical for Romneyand Santorum. They came into it virtually tied inthe polls in Arizona and Michigan, and on the tailof a stunning triple upset by Santorum in thevoting in the three previous contests. As most --including Romney -- saw the former governor'svictory in Florida as proof that he was once again"unstoppable," Santorum's victories in Nevada,Colorado and Minnesota threw the race into a free-for-all yet again.
Santorum clearly wants to build on the impressionthat he's the "conservative alternative" toPresident Barack Obama that Republican voterswant. Wins in Arizona and Michigan would do that,and further erode Romney's "inevitable" image.Wins for Romney might not end the fight, but theywould put him back on track, especially now thatthe race shifts to an expensive mode that favorsthe deep-pocket finances of Romney.
From here on out -- unless they change their mindsand schedule another face-to-face forum -- therace goes back to the pattern of low-budgetrallies and big-budget spending on campaigncommercials. Then the messages will be catered tospecific audiences and, if history (and the just-past Florida primary) is a guide, the campaignwith the most money wins.