Why Tonight’s Republican Presidential Debate Matters

IVN LIVE: We will be live-tweeting the CNN/Arizona Republican Party Debate tonight starting at 5pm PST, 7pm CST, and 8pm EST. You can follow our tweets at @IVNetwork and use the hashtag #4yourself to join in! And of course, we will be bringing you full coverage of the debate in tomorrow’s Presidential Election Update. 

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The Final Four (Santorum, Gingrich, Romney, and Paul) face-off tonight in the last Republican Debate before Super Tuesday. Illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr/Special to The Politics Blog.

After a three week hiatus, the Republican Presidential Debates are back! And while this will mark the 20th debate this election season, here are a few reasons why this one matters: 

1) Santorum’s Sweep: This will be the first joint appearance of the four candidates since Rick Santorum’s multiple victories earlier this month. While his sweep on February 7 resulted in no secured delegates, the symbolic win has resulted in rising numbers in the polls, and he has come in first in the last 8 National polls. Santorum’s emerging position as a front runner makes this debate especially important for him, and especially threatening for Mitt Romney.

2) Super Tuesday: The CNN debate scheduled for March 1 in Georgia was cancelled last week after Romney and Paul declined their invitations. Due to the cancellation, tonight’s event will be the last chance for candidates to debate before the primaries on March 6.

3) Who’s on top: Because of the competitive nature of the Republican Primary race, tonight’s debate will be critical for all candidates, who have each had their ups and downs in this fluctuating race. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer notes: “Everybody’s been on top, and everybody’s been on bottom. Now we’ve got to determine exactly who is going to be the candidate, so I think this will probably be one of the best-watched debates that we’ve seen.”

What to expect from the candidates: 

Rick Santorum: After referring to President Obama’s faith as “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible,” we can expect to see a defense of this statement from Santorum tonight. He has already come out defending himself and has blamed the media for “nitpicking.” Furthermore, his campaign has started using the comment as part of their campaign strategy to portray Santorum as an authentically conservative candidate. Hours before his “theology” remark, Santorum said:

“People are looking for someone who doesn’t read off a teleprompter; that actually tells you what they believe, and can do so with some consistency.”

Newt Gingrich: Hanging on by a thread, Gingrich’s campaign has shifted focus away from Romney attacks and is now targeting Barack Obama, calling him the “most dangerous president in modern American history.” Adopting the new slogan “Let Newt be Newt,” his top advisors are encouraging him to be himself in tonight’s debate, stating that “to some extent, we didn’t let Newt be Newt in [previous] debates.” With most of the attention geared towards Santorum and Romney, tonight’s event gives Gingrich the opportunity to push his agenda, unscathed by the back-and-forth attacks that muted his character in the last two debates.

Mitt Romney: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is expected to turn his attention to Rick Santorum tonight, who is beating him in the latest polls from Gallup, Rasmussen Reports, and Pew Research. Romney is also trailing in his native-state of Michigan, whose February 28th primary may be critical to the future of his campaign. We expect to see much of tonight’s debate focused towards Mitt Romney, as Republican voters are still unconvinced of his electability against President Obama.

Ron Paul: A new Des Moines Register poll distinguishes Ron Paul as the only candidate safely beating President Obama in Iowa, a state that is not only a swing state, but also critical to Obama’s re-election. These numbers indicate that while Paul remains the “back-runner” in this election, his support is still strong, a characteristic that Paul hopes will help raise money in his two fundraisers today. After tonight’s debate, Paul will be speaking at New Life Bible Church.