WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney will face his three Republican rivals Wednesday in a debate that marks the start of a crucial week for his presidential bid.
The former Massachusetts governor badly needs to win the Feb. 28 primary in Michigan, the state where he grew up and his father once governed. A victory there, coupled with a win in the Arizona primary the same day, could give him a strong boost.
But a Michigan loss for the self-described "son of Detroit" could be devastating. Romney has trailed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in most recent statewide polls, though he appears to be closing the gap.
"Romney's loss will leave the party with no clear front-runner, or at least a possible emerging front-runner, Santorum," said Victoria Mantzopoulos, a professor of political science at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Romney's first test of the week comes Wednesday night as Republicans debate for two hours in Mesa, Ariz., starting at 8 p.m. EST. CNN will televise the debate, the 20th of the long primary season and the first since the candidates met in Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 26.
Also participating in the debate — the last before next week's primaries as well as before the 10-state "Super Tuesday" on March 6 — are Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives. Paul has been waging a spirited campaign, while Gingrich, whose campaign was built on debates, has all but disappeared in recent weeks.
"These debates have been important, and the good news for Romney is that he's done well in recent debates," said David Doyle, former Michigan GOP chairman, now vice president at Marketing Resource Group, a Lansing consulting firm.
Romney's two Florida debate performances gave him a boost to win Florida on Jan. 31, but his relatively weak South Carolina debate performance helped Gingrich, who won that state's Jan. 21 primary.
Two days after the Arizona debate, Romney will be tested again, as he is scheduled to make a major economic address at Ford Field, home of football's Detroit Lions. Michigan's ailing economy _the state unemployment rate in December was 9.3 percent — continues to be the dominant issue there. Romney has stirred some ire by arguing against government bailouts of the auto industry, saying a managed bankruptcy would have been a better option.
"People will be watching this speech very carefully," said Steve Mitchell, a Lansing-based political consultant. He thought the risks for Romney are minimal. "He doesn't have to have a Winston Churchill-like moment. He only has to do well."
While Santorum last week took the lead in most statewide Michigan polls, weekend surveys showed Romney within 2 points, according to an average compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
"What you're seeing is Romney's advertising paying off," Mitchell said. Romney has been blasting Santorum on his fiscal record as a big spender. Tuesday, the Romney campaign unleashed more attacks, releasing to the media a paper titled "A Study in Contrasts."
It cited Santorum's 16-year record as a congressman and U.S. senator.
"If business as usual in Washington is the problem, Rick Santorum can't be part of the solution," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Romney has been blasting Santorum for routinely seeking earmarks, or local projects that lawmakers insert into spending bills.
He also voted for the expensive 2003 Medicare prescription drug program for seniors, a vote many conservatives criticize. The program is expected to cost about $68 billion this year alone.
Santorum has defended his earmarks, saying they helped his state and are a legitimate part of his job. He has said that his Medicare vote was a mistake because the program's costs were not offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
Also dogging Santorum are a string of fresh controversies.
He accused President Barack Obama on Saturday of promoting an agenda based on "some phony theology," which seemed to question the president's Christian faith. Santorum later said he was talking about Obama's environmental stands, which he said amounted to putting concern for planet Earth ahead of concern for people.
And his campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart said she misspoke on Monday when she said on MSNBC that Obama has followed "radical Islamic policies."
The Santorum campaign also had to explain a comment last week from Foster Friess, a major campaign donor. "You know, back in my days, they'd use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives," Friess told MSNBC. "The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly."
Santorum later said it was a "bad off-color joke."
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