RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Back in October, we asked a group of Republican voters in Arizona to watch one of the debates. Last night we asked them to do it again, and NPR's Ted Robbins watched with them in SaddleBrooke, Arizona, which is a retirement community just outside Tucson.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Four months ago, Dick and Peg Alford sent out an email inviting members of the SaddleBrooke Republican Club to come to their house to watch one of the early debates. Back then, eight people showed up to watch eight candidates.
Last night, 15 people showed up to watch the remaining four candidates. After some food and drink, the group of retirees settled down to watch.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Governor Romney, the border security is part of the equation of what to do about the...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whether it's eight or 11 million illegal immigrants in the country...
ROBBINS: There weren't as many laughs this time and the candidates didn't seem to score many big points with this group either, not even when border security came up, a big topic in Arizona. Maybe it was because the candidates were sitting down. Maybe it was because they were more practiced. Afterward, Peg Alfred said she thought this debate was more dignified, had fewer attacks than earlier debates, and focused more on beating President Obama.
PEG ALFRED: They finally came to the conclusion that you need to stick together because the one we're fighting against is the ideology of a party that we don't agree with.
ROBBINS: This group may have also been a tad less interested in the debate itself because they've already made up their minds. In fact, more than half have already voted by mail. Of the 15, nine support former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney; six want former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; none said they support former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum or Texas Congressman Ron Paul. That's surprising because some recent Arizona polls have shown Santorum virtually tied for the lead. So much for the polls, say these folks. Roy Christiansen was one debate watcher with a theory.
ROY CHRISTIANSEN: And I'm wondering if it's because he has emphasized family values and people here are saying, hey, it's jobs, the economy, the international affairs, the budgets - it's that sort of thing that's really the top priority these days.
ROBBINS: Another voter here said she thought Santorum comes across as too angry. These SaddleBrooke residents are all retired businesspeople and their spouses. For them, the overriding question seems to be who can beat President Obama in November. The Gingrich supporters, like Nancy McDonald, say their guy is the smartest, most experienced in the field.
NANCY MCDONALD: He's so incredibly knowledgeable about what he's doing. He knows people all over the world. He knows he's got so much history, and he is a historian.
ROBBINS: The Romney supporters, like Jack Shriver, say their guy has the necessary experience as an executive to be president.
JACK SHRIVER: Number one, he's been a governor. Number two, he's been a businessman and he saved the Olympics. I don't care what they say about what he did. The Olympics was failing and they got him in there as a lifeguard and he pulled it out of the hat and made $300 million. So I think he's our man.
ROBBINS: Even the Gingrich supporters said Romney appeared more polished in last night's debate. And Bob Schwartz thinks only Romney can beat Obama.
BOB SCHWARTZ: I've had a number of people in SaddleBrooke come to up to me and tell me they would vote for Romney if he was our candidate. So we've got to have - we've got to appeal to the center and conservative Democrats if we're going to beat Obama.
ROBBINS: Everyone at this debate-watching party said they liked the current Republican candidates just fine and they hate the president - and hate is not too strong a word for Larry Stinson.
LARRY STINSON: I'm almost 80 years old and I tell you what: I'm totally at the point I'd like to leave this country if this sucker gets back in again. It won't happen, but honestly, I think he's destroying this country.
ROBBINS: The all agreed that whoever gets the Republican nomination will get their vote, their money and their volunteer efforts in the general election. Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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