Today's Republican presidential primary debate will focus the nation's attention on Mesa for an evening, but the event's timing brings with it the potential to elevate Arizona issues through the GOP fight for the nomination.
The CNN debate will include questions about Arizona and Western issues, which the state's leaders often complain are overlooked in Washington D.C.
Arizona Republican Party Chairman Tom Morrissey said he expects the debate will help call attention to border issues including immigration, national security and U.S. policies with Mexico.
"It's an opportunity to take a look at what the candidates have in mind as far as meeting all of the challenges that we face in Arizona," Morrissey said. "We have some very unique things happening here that are not happening in the rest of the country."
In his view, having the debate at the Mesa Arts Center is ideal because the community is representative of Arizona as a whole.
Mesa has faced some of the biggest issues since the recession, including the housing foreclosure crisis and battles over illegal immigration. But Mayor Scott Smith said it and the East Valley have had successes worth noting, and not just for self-promotion. The rapid growth of the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and construction of the First Solar manufacturing plant offer ways for candidates to lay out examples of how they would promote economic growth, Smith said.
"I hope that's one of the things that's talked about, the good things going on rather than continuing on the foreclosures and immigration stories," he said. "There's been a lot of great things happening here in Mesa."
CNN anchor John King will moderate the debate. The Arizona Republican Party is co-sponsoring the event and has submitted questions, but Morrissey said CNN has the final say on what to ask candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
Holding the debate in Arizona guarantees plenty of questions about border issues, said Bruce Merrill, a pollster and senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
But the debate could hold more national significance because of its timing. The debate was originally planned in November, then pushed to Wednesday. Many feared the later date would render it meaningless because a clear nominee would have emerged by that point.
But a CNN/Time/ORC International poll released Tuesday showed Romney at 36 percent and Santorum at 32 percent. That's a statistical dead heat with the poll's 4.5 percent margin of error.
Romney had long been expected to win Arizona in part because of its large Mormon population. But that's in doubt now, Merrill said. Romney consistently polls between 25 percent to 30 percent and hasn't been able to win over large numbers of blue-collar Republicans, Merrill said. Santorum's surge in the polls will make the debate even more important, Merrill said.
The debate is the last before Arizona and Michigan hold Feb. 28 primaries.
"We've got a long way to go, but if Romney should lose Arizona and if he should lose Michigan, there's no question that it would entirely change the direction of the Republican primary."
The Arizona debate is the first since Jan. 26. This debate could be the last for Republicans and leave Mesa the place where they make their final case in a national broadcast, said Richard Herrera, an associate professor of politics at ASU.
A single debate usually has only a small impact on a candidate's popularity, Herrera said. But that could make the Arizona debate important given how Romney and Santorum are in a statistical dead heat in a CNN poll released Tuesday.
He expects immigration will come up but sees little value. Congress is deadlocked on immigration and the economy has made it less of a national concern for now, Herrera said. He doesn't see that any candidate would be able to win over many voters entirely on that issue.
If the debate plays a major role in the GOP primary's outcome, Herrera expects it will be from its timing and less because of how Arizona's issues are discussed.
"I'd be surprised if there's an overemphasis on Arizona issues because it seems to me they're becoming indistinguishable from national issues that dominate elections, like the economy," Herrera said.
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