The final four GOP presidential candidates will step back into the debate spotlight in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday night for their last verbal jousting ahead of next Tuesday's contests in Arizona and Michigan, as well as the following week's Super Tuesday line-up.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tailored his usual stump speech to highlight his economic plans to reduce the deficit, taxes and government spending at a Wednesday rally. The other candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul also made appearances ahead of the Wednesday night match-up. And experts say voters watching this debate, like many previously, will be focused on what the candidates' have to say about the reviving the economy.
"This is a very close contest in Michigan and at least in the southeast portion of the state where most of the votes are, people are going to be more concerned about economic issues," says Paul Abramson, political science professor at Michigan State University. "Now in the western part of the state like Grand Rapids, you have many more evangelicals who may be more interested in social issues. But I think for the most part voters in Michigan are going to be concerned about who has the best plans for revitalizing the economy."
But, Abramson adds, voters will want to hear more about the candidates' convictions than the details of their economic proposals.
"I don't think it's as much a question of voters being that interested in the details of the economic plans because in this kind of debate format the candidates, even with only four, don't really have time to discuss the details of their economic plans," he says. "But I think where the candidates have to come across is showing that they are really concerned about the people who are out of work or fearful of becoming out of work."
In addition to Romney's speech highlighting his tax-cutting plan, his economic team held a conference call with reporters to discuss the details and critique his opponents.
Santorum's economic plan "would significantly increase federal deficits, as would the president's plan, and conduct essentially industrial policy by favoring one industry over another," said Romney economic advisor Glenn Hubbard in the conference call. "Gov. Romney wants to have low marginal tax rates across the board for any business activity Americans want to participate in."
Santorum's economic reform proposal calls for reducing taxes for manufacturers at a steeper rate than other companies in hopes of revitalizing the industry.
Santorum was the only GOP candidate specifically called out by the Romney camp, reinforcing the narrative that he's Romney's toughest competition. Romney and Santorum are neck-and-neck in the most recent polling. Despite Santorum's recent wins and a big increase in funding for his campaign, Romney still holds the overall delegate lead in the contest. The winning GOP candidate will need to secure 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination.
Abramson says voters will also be looking to see how Santorum handles the spotlight and how Romney handles the pressure during the debate.
"Unless a candidate makes a real gaffe, I don't think there's anything in this debate that's likely to be game changer," he says. "I do think that given that Santorum is in a much stronger position, there's going to be a lot more scrutiny upon what he says then there has been in previous debates. And Romney has to show he's not flustered by being on the defensive."
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