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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a rally, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, in Muskegon, Mich. ( (Al Goldis/AP/Al Goldis/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a rally, Monday, Feb. 20, 2012, in Muskegon, Mich. ( (Al Goldis/AP/Al Goldis/AP)

Santorum vs. Romney: Tonight's debate could be game-changer Add to ...

The Republican leadership race enters a critical stage tonight as candidates assemble in Arizona for a TV debate in a contest that has showcased how the debate format can be a game-changer.

Nearly a month has passed since the last debate, which took place ahead of the Florida primary on January 31st.

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Ahead of that primary, and the South Carolina primary before it, GOP candidates used the debate stage to influence voters and alter the outcome.

Newt Gingrich won South Carolina based on his debate performances, and Mitt Romney effectively used the Florida debates to counter attack and win decisively.

Tonight’s debate performances will be crucial ahead of the Arizona and Michigan primaries next Tuesday and the 10 state contests that take place a week after that on March 6th Super Tuesday.

The dynamics of the overall race have dramatically changed since the last debate, with Rick Santorum emerging in February as a serious challenger to Mitt Romney after a string of Midwest wins in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has the appearance of being stuck in second gear.

The Santorum surge in Arizona and Michigan now appears to be pulling back, with this morning’s latest poll indicating a tightening of the Michigan race and Mr. Romney in the lead in Arizona.

But Mr. Santorum can still use the tonight’s debate in Mesa, Arizona, to keep the pressure on the Romney campaign. Here are the various campaign game plans:

Rick Santorum

The former Pennsylvania senator has been able to deliver sharp lines during past TV debates on Mr. Romney’s years as Massachusetts governor, focusing in particular on his health-care reform as a model for President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms.

Equating ‘Romneycare’ with ‘Obamacare’ is an effective line. It questions Mr. Romney’s conservative ideological credentials and his ability to fight Mr. Obama in a general election where Republicans expect their candidate to call for a repeal of the Obama health-care legislation.

Mr. Santorum will continue to present himself as a sharper contrast to Mr. Obama, whereas Mr. Romney, as the Santorum campaign has argued, has held positions “identical” to Mr. Obama’s policies.

But also look for CNN moderator John King to press Mr. Santorum on some of his recent ‘gaffes’ – that is, if you believe they are indeed gaffes rather than a deliberate attempt to draw attention and motivate conservative audiences.

Mr. Santorum has delivered some memorable moments in the lead-up to the debate, accusing Mr. Obama of believing in “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible” and then having to explain that he was not questioning the president’s Christianity.

He has also had to deny that he was comparing President Obama to Hitler, and one of his aides had to call a TV network after her interview and withdraw a comment in which she used the phrase ”radical Islamic policies” to describe Mr. Obama’s views.

In the most recent twist, the U.S. website Drudge Report unearthed a 2008 speech in which Mr. Santorum posed the question: “If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age?”

In the audio recording, Mr. Santorum explains to a private Catholic university audience in Florida: “This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America.”

But Mr. Santorum can easily turn a debate question about his ‘Satan’ comments to his advantage and electrify the audience in the same way that Mr. Gingrich used the South Carolina debates to turn question about his marital history to attack none other than CNN’s John King for starting the debate on such a question.

He did the same during a FOX News debate when the moderator asked Mr. Gingrich whether he could see how demeaning it was to call Mr. Obama a “food stamp president.”

Mr. Gingrich delivered one of the most-applauded lines of the debate.

“The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” Mr. Gingrich answered. “I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

Mr. Santorum will do well to follow the Gingrich debate example: attack “elite media,” electrify the audience, and stick to your guns.

Mitt Romney

The former Massachusetts governor has shown the ability to run hot and cold during debate performances.

Ahead of the South Carolina primary, Mr. Romney appeared awkward and drew jeers over his answer to a question about releasing his tax records. Later, he admitted the issue had become a distraction and his campaign released records for 2010 and estimates for 2011.

A sharper, more prepared Mr. Romney took the attack directly to a surging Newt Gingrich in the Florida debates, accusing of him of “inexcusable” and “repulsive” attacks that painted Mr. Romney as anti-immigrant.

Mr. Gingrich appeared flat, unprepared, and, at times, downright sheepish.

The Romney campaign will make sure their candidate is equally prepared in Arizona to deliver its main line of attack on Rick Santorum tonight: that he might be a social conservative, but he is certainly not a fiscal conservative.

“America is drowning in national debt,” the Santorum attack ad narrator says, over the image of a man drowning in water. “Yet Rick Santorum supported billions in earmarks.”

Expect Mr. Romney to go after Mr. Santorum for his past defence of ‘earmarks’, a practice followed by many Washington, D.C. politicians of securing funds for projects in one’s home state.

Newt Gingrich

The former speak of the House of Representatives had a game plan after losing the Florida primary badly: use February to consolidate, raise money and have respectable showings in various contests with an eye to the southern states that will be holding primaries on Super Tuesday March 6th.

The Gingrich campaign is banking on a southern strategy – that Mr. Gingrich’s deep roots in the south will pay-off in a handful of states, including his home state of Georgia.

But that has meant Mr. Gingrich has been virtually off the radar, as the February contests were dominated by the Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul campaigns.

Mr. Gingrich’s poll numbers are flagging and he will be looking to reinsert himself in to the GOP race, even as his campaign lowers expectations for the Arizona and Michigan primaries.

His attacks on Mr. Santorum tend to be soft, describing him as a once “junior” partner in Washington D.C. politics and suggesting that his own vision for the country is bolder than Mr. Santorum’s.

His attacks on Mr. Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate”, tend to be sharper.

Look for Mr. Gingrich to play to the audience with his oft-repeated line – that President Obama is the “most dangerous president in modern American history.”

But Mr. Gingrich also lauds himself for his grandiose ideas, and there is some expectation that he will unveil a grand plan to reduce gas prices.

As RealClearPolitics website reported this morning, Mr. Gingrich has been making the case for how, under his leadership, he would bring the price of gas down to $2 compared to the current national average of $3.57 a gallon.

Ron Paul

The Texas congressman, not to be discounted for delivering his share of memorable debate lines, has been running an attack ad in Michigan questioning Mr. Santorum’s fiscal conservatism.

“Is this dude serious? Fiscal conservative? Really?” the narrator asks in an ad that also describes Mr. Santorum’s Washington, D.C. track record of big government spending as “not groovy.”

It’s a message that echoes the Romney campaign’s line of attack, and could pose an interesting challenge to Mr. Santorum in tonight’s debate.

When Mr. Gingrich was being attacked for his moon colony vision by Mr. Romney during CNN TV debate in Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. Paul also dismissed the idea, to great applause: “We should send some politicians to the moon.”

More often, Mr. Paul sticks to his libertarian and unconventional ideas – a dramatic downsizing and virtual elimination of the role of Washington, D.C., including eliminating the federal reserve, all income tax, and closing U.S. bases overseas and bringing all military personnel back to the country – which continue to energize a small but motivated section of the party.

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