Arizona Debate A Key Platform Before Primaries

Correction Feb. 23, 2012

We incorrectly said that Newt Gingrich has been endorsed by a Latino group called the Tequila Party. The endorsement was actually from the group Somos Republicans.

The four remaining Republican candidates debate Wednesday night in Mesa, Ariz. Host Audie Cornish talks with Ted Robbins, who is in Arizona in advance of the state's Republican primary next Tuesday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Tonight, the Republican presidential candidates take the stage for another debate, the last one before Super Tuesday. After 19 previous debates, that may be a relief or a disappointment, depending on your appetite for debates. But this debate in Mesa, Arizona, could have far-reaching consequences. It comes less than a week before primaries in Arizona and Michigan, and less than two weeks before voters in 10 states go to the polls.

NPR's Ted Robbins joins us now with a look at what we can expect. So, what do we expect from tonight's debate?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Well, I would expect a lot of arguing. Polls have Mitt Romney ahead in Arizona by varying margins and virtually tied in Michigan. A loss in either state would be embarrassing for Romney in Arizona, because there's a sizable Republican Mormon population - even more so in Michigan because Romney was born there. So I expect him to come out swinging at Rick Santorum, trying to make the case that he's the solid conservative, electable against President Obama.

Santorum made his first ever public campaign stops in Arizona yesterday and today - in Phoenix and in Tucson. He's been attacking President Obama harshly in recent speeches. But in the debate, he pretty much has to swing back at Romney to make the case to the party's conservative base - the ones who will vote in the primary.

Newt Gingrich, of course, is fading. He has little to lose and he hasn't shown any reluctance to bash anyone; including CNN moderator John King, when he doesn't like a question. And Ron Paul will no doubt stick to his libertarian agenda.

CORNISH: So, give us some context here about Arizona. I'm expecting to hear maybe immigration and border security as big issues?

ROBBINS: Yeah. I'd be really surprised, Audie, if it doesn't come up tonight. There's been a lot of activity. A group which wants the candidates all to support a fence across the entire 2,100-mile border with Mexico held a news conference yesterday. Latino advocates, who are upset with what they see as a strident anti-immigrant tone in the campaign, are scheduled to protest outside the debate.

There's been some consternation among Latino Mormons over Romney's stance especially, because the Mormon Church advocates a moderate approach of welcoming immigrants and integrating them into society. And Romney - a Mormon himself, of course - has advocated that those in the country illegally should voluntarily deport themselves. Rick Santorum's position isn't much - really isn't much different. Newt Gingrich is the most moderate and he has the support of a Latino group called the Tequila Party.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Newt Gingrich has been endorsed by the Latino Republican organization Somos Republicans, not the Tequila Party.]

So, all the candidates, though, including Ron Paul, support tougher border security, even as the number of illegal entrants has fallen.

CORNISH: And lastly, Ted, Arizona actually has early voting by mail. So how does this affect the race?

ROBBINS: Right, in general elections, a third of the voters vote by mail and you would think that in the primary anyone who's already voted would - that might help Romney because they voted before Rick Santorum's recent surge.

CORNISH: NPR's Ted Robbins in Arizona. Thanks so much, Ted

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

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