Politics

As Republicans debate, voters prepare for next round of primaries

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, from left, speaks as former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich look on during the Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz.

In Arizona on Wednesday, the four remaining Republican candidates sat down to debate for the 20th time this election season.

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The only difference this time was the tone — Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney went out each other with a ferocity not previously seen — and the fact that there are no other debates on the calendar. The debate came just six days before primaries in Arizona, as well as Michigan. The latest polling averages from Real Clear Politics show Romney with a comfortable, enduring lead in Arizona, 38.2 percent to 30 percent for Santorum. In Michigan, however, the script is flipped — though with less stability. Santorum has a .6 percent average lead over Romney. Santorum's lead has narrowed from as much as 9.3 points a little over a week ago.

The see-saw battle between Santorum and Romney was center stage in Wednesday night's debate — with the two attacking each other with a ferocity not seen before. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul both tried hard to make sure they were relevant as well.

Tom Morrissey, the Chairman of the Arizona GOP, said housing, immigration and jobs were important issues that are resonating in Arizona — and he didn't hear much about housing or jobs in Wednesday night's debate.

"I think these debates and these different forums, really have been more focused on the candidates attacking each other. A lot of the things you'd like to hear, you might see folks give a run-around," he said. "But I can't imagine what it would be like to sit in the seats of any of those four gentleman...but what I heard I was pleased with."

Robert Schostak, the Chairman of the Michigan GOP, said that while the auto bailout was a hot topic in Wednesday night's debate, it's really water under the bridge.

The companies are thriving, they're competitive, they're paying bonuses, he said.

But the question remains, can any one candidate unite what is a deeply divided Republican Party? Morrissey said that's not the case — and that this is a very healthy process for Republicans.

"I equate these campaigns to being a muscle. These debates and these discussions and disagreements, that's exercising the muscle. What the result is is stronger muscle," Morrissey said. "We're going to have a stronger candidate."

Schostak said that, at least in Michigan, where Romney has deep local ties, the pressure is on to perform and perform well. While Santorum came in with momentum which helped him to surge locally.