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Republican debate: why Rick Santorum faces more pressure than Mitt Romney

Wednesday night's Republican debate in Arizona may be the most crucial yet. But Mitt Romney isn't the only one facing pressure. Rick Santorum needs to show that his rise to the top is real.

By Staff Writer / February 22, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally at the Sabbar Shrine Center, Wednesday in Tucson, Ariz.

Eric Gay/AP

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Washington

Mitt Romney faces enormous pressure Wednesday night in the only Republican debate before next Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona – and the 10 on Super Tuesday a week later.

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It’s Mr. Romney’s biggest chance to get his campaign back on track since Rick Santorum shot to the top of national polls after his stunning sweep of Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado on Feb. 7. If Romney loses in Michigan (Feb. 28) and then Ohio (March 6) – two big heartland contests, including his native state – the political universe will be turned on its head.

But the stakes are just as high for Santorum – and arguably higher. Even with key losses, Romney will remain the best organized candidate in the race, with the biggest war chest and his name on the ballot in all remaining contests.  Santorum is still the underdog in all those spheres, and he needs to win Michigan to show that he can succeed in a big, hotly contested race.  

And to win Michigan, where the polls show Romney rising back into a dead heat, Santorum has to reassure voters.

“Santorum’s job tonight is to quell fears about his general-election electability,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Taking on social issues to differentiate himself from [Newt] Gingrich and Romney is a good strategy, but it’s high risk. He’s been over-talking.”

Santorum’s first task, Mr. O’Connell says, is to take his strong views on social issues – a plus with the so-called “values voters” in the Republican base – and turn them into a discussion on limited government and strong families, not about telling individuals what to do. In recent days Santorum has been all over birth control, women’s role in society, and same-sex marriage.

Then there’s the story about his 2008 speech on how Satan was “attacking the great institutions of America,” now in its second day on the highly read Drudge Report. When asked about it Tuesday, Santorum didn’t disavow the remarks.

“I’m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil,” Santorum said in response to questions from CNN, host of the Wednesday night debate, which begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Then he added that he didn’t think the topic was relevant to today.

“What we’re talking about in America today is trying to get America growing. That’s what my speeches are about. That’s we’re going to talk about in this campaign,” said Santorum.

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