Santorum Takes Center Stage At Latest Debate

GOP hopefuls sparred again during Wednesday night's debate in Arizona. It was the final debate before the Michigan and Arizona primaries next week and Super Tuesday on March 6. Host Michel Martin discusses the latest election developments with GOP strategist Ron Christie and Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, graduate degrees can give you a competitive edge in the job market, but the cost is steep. We'll talk about why, despite the recession, so many Americans are going to graduate school, whether that investment is paying off for them, and whether it's paying off for society. That's coming up. But first, we want to turn to last night's debate in the desert, where the Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Mesa, Arizona.

While the candidates sat side by side at the debate table, that did not keep them from throwing some elbows at each other, like this sparring between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich over earmarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: We've had thousands and thousands of earmarks. They are typically tagged onto, bundled onto other bills. Okay, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Mr. Speaker...

NEWT GINGRICH: Wait a second, wait a second.

RICK SANTORUM: You're entitled to your opinions, Mitt. You're not entitled to the - you know, to misrepresent...

ROMNEY: I've heard that line before. I've heard that before, yeah.

SANTORUM: ...the facts. And you're misrepresenting the facts. You don't know what you're talking about.

MARTIN: The event, hosted by CNN, was the final GOP debate before Arizona and Michigan vote next week and also before Super Tuesday on March 6, and that's when the greatest number of states hold their primary elections. We wondered whether last night's debate settles the question of who is the real Republican frontrunner. Joining us to talk about this, Janice Crouse. She is a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute. That's a think tank for the conservative public policy group Concerned Women For America.

Welcome back. It's good to talk to you once again.

JANICE CROUSE: Thank you, Michel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Here with us in Washington, D.C. Also with us in Washington, D.C., Ron Christie, founder and president of Christie Strategies, a media and political strategy firm. He's also a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush, and a frequent contributor to our political and Barbershop roundtables. Welcome back to you. Thank you for joining us once again.

RON CHRISTIE: Pleasure as always.

MARTIN: So Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have been jousting for weeks and they've been kind of trading places in first place in the public opinion polls. So Janice Crouse, I want to ask if either of them, you think, made a convincing case for frontrunner status last night.

CROUSE: No. Neither of them did. You know, I think it was a win for the GOP last night. We have - could question who was going to come out on top. Last night we had three candidates, Mitch - Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich - all three who had really, really good nights, and in fact Ron Paul did as well. But none of them really took the show and Rick Santorum did not live up to his previous performances, actually.

It was a down night for him. But even though Mitt Romney was really good, he was right on target with his answers and very well prepared, he had kind of a deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes as though he were desperate last night. He didn't come through smiling as Rick Santorum did and he wasn't cheerful as Newt was, so I think it was a toss-up last night.

And all three of them needed a win, and neither of the - none of them got it.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, what do you think?

CHRISTIE: Slightly different take. I mean, I think Governor Romney won by not losing. This was a night that Senator Santorum had to come out. He had to convince the folks that sitting in that center stage, sitting in that center seat, solidified his position as the co-frontrunner, and I don't think he closed the deal. He looked a little bit uncomfortable at times. He gave these waffling answers on his earmarking record.

And frankly, in politics, as you know, Michel, sometimes if you're explaining, you're losing the battle by people not understanding where you're coming from. So I thought Santorum did not live up to his expectations of what many thought he would perform last night and solidify a lead. And not only in Michigan, heading into the primary next Tuesday, but also Arizona, which also has a vote that day.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because I thought - I was reading some of the kind of reaction from other analysts and they were saying that Santorum won by not losing because one of the dangers for him, thinking about the general election fight, is coming across as an extremist and also being nasty. And a lot of people don't like people who are nasty. They don't like people who seem to have a mean edge.

And there are people who felt that he did well last night by not coming across as as angry and as hard-edged as some people have felt him to be in previous encounters. Ron?

CHRISTIE: He wasn't angry, but again, he was on the defensive. And I think this is what happens when you are the first - for the first time, not sitting on either wing of the stage, but sitting in the middle, taking tough questions, taking very difficult jabs from your opponents. And that's why I think he wasn't able to articulate a positive vision, because he was on the defense for most of the night last night.

MARTIN: I also want to talk a little bit about - go ahead, Janice.

CROUSE: And he was on defense from everybody.

CHRISTIE: Yes.

CROUSE: It was interesting to see that because he has not, as Ron pointed out, faced that kind of barrage before. Everybody...

MARTIN: Because he hasn't been the frontrunner.

CROUSE: ...was targeting him. Right.

MARTIN: Which is what happens when you move out front; everybody starts kind of aiming their sites at you. Talk about immigration for a minute, because Arizona has been so much in the news over - in the forefront of the immigration debate. Governor Jan Brewer signed what was at the time the toughest anti-immigration or anti-illegal-immigration measure back in 2010. Several states have followed that state's lead since then.

Last night, Mitt Romney defended those states and I just want to play a short clip of that. He says he will back that approach as president. Here's a clip.

ROMNEY: I'll also complete the fence. I'll make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence, and I will make sure we have an e-verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers and to check e-verify. You do that and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration. It's time we finally did it.

MARTIN: Ron, I'll go to you first on this one because the other candidates did not seem to vary very much from this position, and I wanted to ask, first of all, whether you think that that means it really won't be a defining issue, or, as some others are suggesting, that the party has staked out such a tough position on this that it actually is a danger of being problem in the November elections because this is a danger of turning off particularly Latino voters who may lean Democratic or may be independent and it's turned them off completely.

CHRISTIE: This is one of these issues I've never understood, Michel. I think that, as Americans, regardless of your ethnicity or regardless of your - the color of your skin, that you should be in favor of enforcing our immigration laws. I think this has been a failure by Republican administrations, by Democratic administrations, and the fact that Arizona and other states thought we need to step into this void that has been left by the federal government, I don't think they should be penalized for it.

The federal government has failed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has supported comprehensive immigration reform that President Bush put forth; the Democrats have put forth comprehensive immigration reform, and it has been blocked. We need to get this done at the federal level so states don't have to put this in their hands.

MARTIN: Janice, what do you think? Do you have a different perspective on this?

CROUSE: No. I thought there was considerable unity last night and I think that's a strong point for the Republicans, that there is consistency in their views on this issue. The differences between them are very minor, in fact on most of the issues. And I think that was a real benefit last night, that they came through as only difference in personality, only difference in style, only difference in very minor points on the issues.

MARTIN: We're talking about last night's debate and the Republican presidential race. It's been a very interesting race with a lot of changing of the lead. We're talking with Janice Crouse of the public policy group Concerned Women for America. She's a senior fellow there. We're also joined by Republican strategist Ron Christie, one of our frequent guests.

All right. Let's talk about Michigan. Romney's home state, father was the governor. It's being said that this would be a real blow to Mitt Romney if he can't win Michigan, even though he hasn't lived there for quite some time. Janice, do you agree?

CROUSE: Yes, I do. I think this is really a very important state for Romney. It's also important now for Santorum, because of the agreement that he didn't have his best performance last night in the debate. So if he loses momentum and does not do as well as expected in Michigan, it will be a blow for him as well. Currently he still is ahead on the polls slightly and nationally is ahead, so the expectations are really high on him, not so high on Romney.

So if Romney does better than expected, it might not be the devastating blow that it will be if he loses.

MARTIN: Ron, how do you read it?

CHRISTIE: By delegate count, if Governor Romney loses Michigan it won't be that bad for his overall delegate count, but this is about politics and this is about optics. From an optical standpoint, for him to lose the state where he was born and raised and his father was the governor, that he couldn't close the deal with that electorate I think would continue the narrative of, you know, maybe Governor Romney can't close the deal.

I think he will ultimately eke this out. I hate being recorded. I think he'll eke this out and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. We'll only play it every day.

CHRISTIE: ...there is - yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And you think he'll eke it out. But, you know, what about people - what about Newt Gingrich? Because now, heading into Super Tuesday, people are saying the same thing about him. You know, Newt Gingrich represented Georgia for - a district in Georgia for quite some time in Congress, of course, and even through his speakership and now people are saying, you know, if he heads to Super Tuesday and doesn't do well in Georgia, what does that say about his candidacy? We haven't really heard from him recently, except that he - earlier this week, he released a 30 minute commercial with an emphasis on that. What's your take on that?

CHRISTIE: I think the former speaker has been up and down twice. I don't see a third rise of the former speaker of the house. I think, ultimately, this is a two-person race with Governor Romney and Senator Santorum and the other two gentlemen on the stage are going to stick it out for their own, either political purposes or to sell books or to position themselves for some future endeavor. But it's a Santorum and Romney race right now.

MARTIN: You think so, Janice?

CROUSE: I agree totally.

MARTIN: Really?

CROUSE: And I found it fascinating, last night, to watch the body language. Gingrich was very intimidated by Romney. He kept looking at Romney, smiling at Romney. I thought it was fascinating to watch that kind of interaction. I had a sense that Newt had given up and his...

MARTIN: He's angling for a cabinet post at this stage.

CROUSE: He was angling for a cabinet post and he's going to hang in there for, I suspect, right straight, as he said, to the convention. But we'll see whether that remains true or not. He certainly is getting the money to do that if he wants to.

MARTIN: How would that be seen within the party, if he did hang in there? As divisive or as just Newt being Newt or...

CROUSE: Well, at this point, he's such a loose cannon that I don't think anything he does is going to be much of a surprise. I think he might lose some favor within the party, if it's possible for him to lose any more than he already has, with his behavior.

But I don't know, Michel. It's going to be interesting to see how he handles not being front and center.

MARTIN: Ron, final thought from you. We only have about a minute left. Super Tuesday is typically seen as the presidential candidate's first true test of national electability. And I hate to put you on the spot again, but do you think that, after Super Tuesday, there will be a decisive frontrunner and the party will start to coalesce around that person?

CHRISTIE: No, I don't. I don't. I think that there could be some surprises. I think Senator Santorum could surprise in some of the conservative states. I think Governor Romney will ultimately do well, but I don't see this thing ending in the first week of March. I just don't.

MARTIN: You either, Janice?

CROUSE: I don't see it ending, either. I think it depends a lot on what happens Tuesday in Michigan. If Romney does really, really badly, it could be disastrous.

MARTIN: Janice Crouse is a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute. That's the think tank for the conservative public policy group Concerned Women for America. She was here with us in Washington, D.C. Good to see you once again.

CROUSE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Ron Christie, founder and president of Christie Strategies. That's a media and political strategy firm. He's also a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He was also here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much.

CHRISTIE: Pleasure.

CROUSE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, new questions about whether everybody's getting a fair shot at winning one of those golden statues at the Academy Awards. The Los Angeles Times says a majority of Oscar voters are white and male, but is that a problem? We'll ask one of the few African-American voters in just a few minutes. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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