Santorum Tells Ariz. Voters Good Stuff Is Happening

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A new poll of Arizona voters shows former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in a virtual tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Next week's Arizona primary is on the same day as Michigan's, but has received less attention. Santorum campaigned in the Phoenix area Tuesday ahead of Wednesday night's debate in Mesa.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Republican presidential candidates will gather outside of Phoenix tonight for the last prime-time debate before Super Tuesday. All eyes will be on Rick Santorum, the latest candidate to challenge Mitt Romney's grip on the nomination. As Peter O'Dowd reports from member station KJZZ, Santorum arrived in the state early, getting the attention of voters in Phoenix.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Since election season began, Arizona's essentially been a one-candidate race: Mitt Romney and everyone else. And then suddenly it wasn't.

RICK SANTORUM: We feel like some good things are happening in Arizona for us right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

O'DOWD: On the eve of the next Republican debate, Rick Santorum marched into Arizona with two rallies in Phoenix. The candidate seemed to feel momentum on his side.

SANTORUM: We are here not just to debate. We're here to win Arizona on next Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

O'DOWD: Santorum told the crowd of supporters he'd repeal President Obama's healthcare plan. He called free-market healthcare the central economic issue in the race. Santorum also dismissed critics who've latched onto comments he's made about the president's so-called phony theology, and a 2008 speech in which Santorum talked about Satan targeting the United States.

SANTORUM: They said, oh, wow. He's really out there. I mean, you've got to worry about everything he says. No, you don't, because I'll defend everything I'll say, because it comes from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

O'DOWD: Santorum pointed to his heart when he said it. About a month ago, polls here showed the former senator solidly in third place, far behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Now, with less than a week to go before Election Day, a new CNN poll shows Santorum and Romney in a statistical tie. Bill Voght is a Santorum supporter.

BILL VOGHT: Those kinds of things tell me that God is on his side and bringing him forward.

O'DOWD: Like a lot of others here, Voght says Santorum is the strongest conservative of the bunch: strong on family values and deeply faithful.

VOGHT: When he gets the nomination and goes up against President Obama, I think he's just going to tear him apart, because there's such a strong contrast between the two of them.

O'DOWD: But Santorum has a long way to go before wrapping up this state, let alone his party's nomination.

JIM HAYNES: On balance, I'd still be surprised if Santorum got over the top.

O'DOWD: Jim Haynes is a local pollster. He says despite Santorum's surge, it will be difficult for him to overcome Romney's campaign infrastructure in Arizona. Romney also has the endorsement of Arizona Senator John McCain, and until now, more face time with local voters. Haynes says tonight's debate is crucial if Santorum is to solidify his momentum.

HAYNES: And it's the byproducts from momentum. It's not just votes. It's dollars. It's contributions. It's all the things that go with the perception that this is the person that's on the move.

CT WRIGHT: My name is CT Wright. I'm a Republican here in the state of Arizona.

O'DOWD: I met Wright just before he sat down to lunch at Santorum's first event of the day. He's a member of the Tea Party and one of several people who told me that tonight's debate is one last chance to see how Santorum stacks up against the competition before finally deciding who to vote for next week.

WRIGHT: This debate will really set the tone. I think that as a result of this debate, we will see a candidate emerging at the top of our list and we will go forward for victory in November of 2012.

O'DOWD: Wright says Arizona's Tea Party voters have been looking for someone to latch onto, and that Santorum has finally emerged as a viable conservative option. Fellow Tea Party faithful Jo Meek and husband, Andrew, agree. They say Santorum and Arizona's voters are just now warming up to each other.

JO MEEK: At first, when he was in the debates, I don't think they knew him and - or understood what he stood for at all.

O'DOWD: And that's changing now?

MEEK: Oh, definitely changing, yes.

ANDREW MEEK: I don't think he'd had his voice at the beginning of the campaign. I think he found a good voice, and he's working on it now.

O'DOWD: If Santorum is to fully find his voice in Arizona, he only has until Election Day on the 28th to do it.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

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