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Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul will be debating once again on CNN. It is the first Republican presidential debate of this month and it comes at a potentially pivotal point in the race. Romney is clinging to a narrow lead in Arizona and is eroding a similarly slim Santorum lead in Michigan, both states holding their primaries on Tuesday.
Santorum has emerged as Romney’s latest leading challenger and knockout wins on Tuesday could make him the frontrunner. Santorum has already leapfrogged Romney in most national polls. Similarly, if Romney holds on in Arizona and comes back in Michigan — one of his home states — it will give him a boost heading into Super Tuesday, perhaps rekindling talk that he is the inevitable nominee once again.
One thing to watch will be Romney’s stance toward Santorum in the debate. Will he be conservative, hoping to avoid a mistake that will stall his Michigan momentum and deal him an embarrassing loss, or will he take the aggressive approach that worked against Gingrich in Florida? Romney’s attempts to paint Santorum as a fiscal liberal have floundered because both he and his congressional surrogates lack a clearly superior record on these issues. It is hard to see how he can directly go after Santorum on social issues without also bringing up his own liberal baggage from Massachusetts.
An x factor in this debate, as usual, is Paul. Paul has gone up on the air with anti-Santorum negative ads in Michigan, where the Texas congressman is running ahead of Gingrich in the polls. Paul can more credibly attacks Santorum on issues like Medicare Part D, because he actually voted against the entitlement expansion.
UPDATE: Matt Lewis makes a good point: “Gingrich tends to perform exceptionally well as the underdog. His performances as the front runner, however, weren’t as good. The pressure should be off tonight. Expect Gingrich to have a solid performance.”
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