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

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

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.  

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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.

As a former senator from Pennsylvania with working-class roots, Santorum’s hope is to appeal in particular to the substantial portion of the Republican base that fits his profile – conservative, religious, self-made.

Santorum has developed into a skilled debater, in contrast with Romney, who can blow hot and cold – and at times, allows his opponents to get under his skin. He, too, needs a strong performance Wednesday night, to remind primary voters why he’s been consistently at or near the top of the GOP field for months, albeit never rising above 40 percent among Republicans. The wealthy former businessman and former governor of Massachusetts often gets points for looking and sounding presidential, but has had trouble connecting with people.

The other two competitors in the debate – former Speaker Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul – will also have a chance to shine. Gingrich, the two-time national front-runner, needs a strong performance to attempt yet another comeback. Once Romney’s biggest challenger, Gingrich is now useful as he siphons support away from Santorum.

“Newt can rise above it and seem statesmanlike,” a Gingrich campaign source told Politico. “He does not need most of the air time.... This is the first debate where Newt is neither a front-runner nor one of nine on the stage. This can help. Romney can’t connect with average people, and Santorum scares the hell out of women. Newt might not look so bad, after all.”

Gingrich is known for attacking debate moderators – most memorably, Wednesday night’s moderator, John King – and has promised to talk solutions. The recent spike in gas prices is sure to come up, and Gingrich is ready. His campaign announced Wednesday that it will buy 30-minute blocks of time in “key cities” – as yet unannounced – in the run-up to Super Tuesday to air a 28-minute address by Gingrich on lowering gasoline prices, creating jobs, and achieving energy independence.

Congressman Paul, who brings a devoted cadre of libertarian-leaning voters to the mix, has played an interesting game of late, running interference for Romney by defending him and attacking Santorum. Paul and Romney reportedly like each other, and it’s possible that Paul is angling for a prime speaking slot at the GOP convention if Romney is the nominee. Paul may also be looking to influence the Republican Party’s platform. His role in Wednesday’s debate will also be something to watch.

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