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Will Arizona debate pit Santorum against Gingrich, Romney or Satan?

February 22, 2012 |  9:16 am

Mesa AZ debate

Newt Gingrich has been the most intriguing figure in the seemingly endless series of Republican presidential debates, especially in the early months of the campaign when he was trying to pull himself into contention. He's in that posture again now, having fallen sharply in popularity from his late-January apex. At Wednesday night's gabathon in Arizona, however, he'll be chasing a different front-runner: Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney.

This should be good, for no other reason than the pointed words Gingrich and Santorum have exchanged on the campaign trail.

Santorum, you may recall, was the one who said at a previous CNN debate that Gingrich's "grandiose" thinking was a liability on the campaign trail. If Gingrich were the nominee, Republican voters would constantly be "worrying about what he's going to say next," Santorum said, adding, "I'm not going to go out and do things you're going to worry about." He's since belied that promise; more on that later.

The former senator from Pennsylvania's critique came after the debate's moderator, John King, brought up Gingrich's comment that Santorum should drop out of the race because he lacked "any of the knowledge for how to do something on this scale." When King asked Gingrich to elaborate, he replied, "How big a scale of change do we want in Washington?" He then went on to cite a litany of accomplishments by Congress (and the Clinton administration) while he was speaker of the House in the mid-1990s: welfare reform, balanced budgets, a tax cut, millions of jobs created.

"I think grandiose thoughts," Gingrich said, oblivious to the pejorative meaning of the word. "This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects."

Naturally, Gingrich won't be the only one taking aim at Santorum on Wednesday night.

So, too, will Romney, who's still trying to win over conservatives, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who's just trying to stay relevant.

Romney and Restore our Future, the "super PAC" that's supporting him, have tried to persuade voters that Santorum isn't truly conservative, fiscally, citing his support for pork-barrel projects and his votes to (gasp!) raise the federal debt limit. The former may be a valid criticism of the go-along-to-get-along ways of Washington, but pork-barrel highway projects aren't responsible for this country's fiscal woes. In fact, you could argue that such projects haven't been responsible for any of the red ink spilled during Santorum's tenure, given that they were funded by gas tax receipts that could only be spent on transportation improvements. And voting to raise the debt-ceiling, as I've argued repeatedly in the past, is simply voting to honor the commitments Congress has already made. It's not running up the credit card bill, it's agreeing to pay it.

In the old days -- say, October or November -- Romney was the one bringing the voice of reason to debates, regularly pointing out the practical realities of governing that made the purist stances taken by his rivals seem simple-minded. These aren't those days. Romney's campaign and its allies are now reduced to making the sort of silly, red-meat-waving arguments that he once nimbly shot down. That's just sad.

The conventional wisdom is that things could get worse for Romney if the campaign shifts away from economic issues (where he has some credibility) to social ones (where he doesn't). And it may head that way, considering the improving economy and the recent brouhaha over federally mandated free contraception.

But just as grandiosity is Gingrich's Achilles' heel, so may social issues be for Santorum. He can sound like an extremist when he talks about education and faith, and he doesn't seem to recognize how far out in the fringes he can be. For example, the media recently unearthed a speech he gave in 2008 in which he said Satan was targeting the United States. Even Rush Limbaugh said Santorum would have to explain that one. Yet the candidate didn't back off from the remarks or try to put them in a more reasonable-sounding context.

Pigeonholed as an anti-abortion candidate early on, Santorum has broadened his appeal by articulating a mainstream Republican vision for the economy. Granted, his desire to boost manufacturing by giving it huge advantages in the tax code smacks of industrial policy, and the Wall Street Journal's editorial board has called him on it. Yet he's also stressed the need to restore upward mobility to the working class, a blue-collar message that helps deflect the criticism that Republicans are concerned only about the wealthy. The more he talks about Satan on the stump, the more he drifts back into the fringe from which he worked so hard to escape.

So, will CNN's King introduce Satan into the debate Wednesday? Or will he still be shell-shocked from the verbal beating Gingrich delivered in South Carolina, after King opened the Jan. 19 debate with a question about the "open marriage" allegations that Gringich's most recent ex-wife had made? Perhaps Paul, who seems utterly fearless on stage, will ask Santorum whether Satan wouldn't like to see the United States bomb Iran. Now that would be an exchange worth watching.

RELATED:

Rick Santorum: Odd man in?

Goldberg: Mr. Right eludes the GOP

How about Santorum vs Obama, winner take all?

-- Jon Healey

Photo: The Arizona debate stage. Credit: Tim Hacker / East Valley Tribune

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