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CNN reschedules Arizona’s GOP presidential debate to February

Republican presidential candidates stand together before a Republican debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Timing is everything, and for Arizona that may not be a good thing.

CNN today announced that it would reschedule Arizona’s Republican presidential primary debate to Feb. 22, just six days before the state’s presidential preference election. The debate, which will be held at the Mesa Arts Center, was originally scheduled for Nov. 30.

“CNN decided it would be more appropriate to hold this important debate in the critical state of Arizona closer to the primary election,” CNN said in a press statement. The cable news giant said Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Republican Party, its partners in organizing the debate, agreed to the scheduling change.

Brewer, who urged the Republican National Committee to sanction a presidential debate in Arizona, had hoped the debate would be a marquee event that would focus the attention of the nation and the GOP field on Arizona-centric issues. The RNC agreed to sanction a debate in Arizona after Brewer agreed not to move the state’s primary up to Feb. 1.

But Brewer’s goal of featuring Arizona’s issues, such as border security and the housing crisis, on a prominent national stage may be undercut by a smaller field of candidates and a less competitive race. By the time Arizona holds its debate, crucial early-state primaries that may decide the nomination – or at least winnow the crowded Republican field – such as Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, will be over.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has held his first-place spot in the polls for much of the race, while candidates such as Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and restaurateur Herman Cain – who was in Scottsdale Tuesday to defend himself from sexual harassment allegations – have all stumbled after taking turns as his top challenger.

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said the governor wasn’t disappointed by the move. He said he still expected the GOP primary to be competitive by the Feb. 22 debate, which he said would still be “ideal timing for a debate to talk about Arizona and southwestern issues.”

“The governor’s priority from the start has been to get a debate in Arizona in which our voters would get an opportunity to see the candidates in advance of Arizona’s presidential preference election. And a Feb. 22 debate still accomplishes that goal,” Benson said. “I think that you’re still going to have a lively race at that point. Remember that Super Tuesday isn’t until March … so I think by most political estimations, the Republican nomination will still be very much in the air as of Feb. 22.”

Arizona Republican Party spokesman Shane Wikfors said the party had been looking forward to the Nov. 30 debate and wasn’t sure why CNN decided to reschedule.

“We were pretty geared up for it. CNN initiated the schedule change and we are working on trying to find out why we needed to make the change,” Wikfors said.

The rescheduling of the debate may also change the timing of Brewer’s endorsement. The governor had said she would wait to endorse a candidate until after the Nov. 30 debate, and Benson said he wasn’t sure whether the new date would change her plans.

“With the shifting of the debate a couple months, I don’t know if she’s going to wait until the middle of February on that or not,” Benson said.

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