Previewing tonight’s GOP presidential debate from Arizona

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Nearly a month after the last debate, tonight brings the 20th and final showdown before Super Tuesday.

Thumbtack – This debate will feature a table rather than podiums — the first CNN debate this cycle that will feature candidates seated, rather than standing. The table has a translucent blue top and a silver brushed aluminum base. CNN last used this table in a Republican debate on Jan. 30, 2008, at the Reagan Library. Sitting at this very same table for that debate: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Via Politico.

Updates:

5:59 p.m. – Check out this chart detailing which questions are being asked at the GOP debates:

5:08 p.m. – Can Santorum beat Obama? Ross Douthat doubts it:

[T]he former senator has the instincts of an activist, rather than of a president or statesman. Whether the topic is social issues or foreign policy, his zeal exceeds his prudence, and as a result his career is littered with debating society provocations (referencing “man-on-dog” sex in an argument about gay marriage, using his doomed 2006 Senate bid to educate Pennsylvanians on the evils of Hugo Chavez, etc.) that have won him far more enemies than friends. His passion for ideas and argument often does him credit, but in a national campaign it would probably do him in.

4:53 p.m. – At tonight’s Republican primary debate, the question of what questions should be asked is a little louder, thanks in part to a Guardian package that analyzed all the questions asked in all 19 previous Republican primary debates.

4:51 p.m. – President Obama’s re-election campaign says they will compete hard in Arizona and a new Public Policy Polling survey suggests they should.

Obama is now tied with Mitt Romney in Arizona at 47%, a dramatic improvement from November when he trailed by 7 points. He leads Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich each by 4 points, 46% to 42% and 48% to 44% respectively. The only Republican he actually runs behind is Rick Santorum, although only by a single point at 47% to 46%.

4:45 p.m. – John Avlon notes that for all the entertainment of the GOP presidential debates “there is a civic cost to the radioactive rhetoric that gets thrown out to excite the conservative crowds.”

“It’s not just that the most irresponsible candidates can play to the base and get a boost in the polls, while more sober-minded candidates like Jon Huntsman fail to get attention. The real damage is to the process of running for president itself. Because when low blows get rewarded, the incentive to try to emulate Lincoln — holding yourself to a higher standard — is diminished. And one barometer of this atmospheric shift is in the increasingly overheated rhetoric by candidates attacking the current president. This serial disrespect ends up unintentionally diminishing the office of president itself.”

2:48 p.m. – The New York Times notes that Newt Gingrich, “more than any other candidate, has seen his fortunes ebb and flow with debates, and there is a consensus in his team that his big loss in Florida’s Republican presidential primary last month was in no small part because of debates in which he strained to look above the fray. According to one top aide, Mr. Gingrich’s two daughters had advised him to strike a presidential pose, but that was not the Newt Gingrich voters craved.”

10:00 a.m. – Sheriff Joe will not endorse: “Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose hardline stance on illegal immigration has drawn him national controversy as well as a Justice Department investigation, says he will not endorse a GOP presidential candidate before next Tuesday’s Arizona primary,”

7:59 a.m. – “Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, who plans to make an endorsement in the race after the debate, said in an interview that Mr. Santorum was eroding Mr. Romney’s advantage because ‘he comes across as straightforward, honest and solid,'” per The New York Times’ Mike Shear and Jeff Zeleny. “She said she believes that Mr. Romney is conservative, but that many voters do not.”

7:58 a.m. – The Arizona Republic’s 5 things to watch for tonight: Romney’s tone; Can Santorum change the subject?; Gingrich’s last stand?; John King’s moderation; “The Babeu factor

7:57 a.m. – Four men will be on stage in Mesa, Arizona, but the focus will be on the Romney-Santorum fight. “Santorum, while less theatrical than Gingrich, is the most agile debater in the current field. But Romney is also strong, and has tended to perform at his best when he’s had to come from behind – witness the two Florida debates before the Jan. 31 primary. In those venues, when he needed a command performance, he delivered,” Maggie Haberman writes in her curtain-raiser. Santorum “will need to avoid seeming angry or defensive, reactions Romney is likely to try to provoke.”

7:56 a.m. – Let Newt be Newt: “Gingrich, more than any other candidate, has seen his fortunes ebb and flow with debates, and there is a consensus in his team that his big loss in Florida’s Republican presidential primary last month was in no small part because of debates in which he strained to look above the fray,” The New York Times’ Trip Gabriel writes. “According to one top aide, Mr. Gingrich’s two daughters had advised him to strike a presidential pose, but that was not the Newt Gingrich voters craved. ‘To some extent,’ said Bob Walker, another top adviser, ‘we didn’t let Newt be Newt in those debates.’ In the debate on Wednesday in Mesa, Ariz., the first in nearly a month, Mr. Gingrich will not be center stage. His advisers believe that will allow him to remain unscathed while [Santorum and Romney] do battle. ‘They can be the Chihuahuas, and he can be Churchill,’ said Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Mr. Gingrich.”

7:48 a.m. – Mike Allen wonders will Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have ash on their foreheads?

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.