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Debate will put spotlight on Arizona in GOP race

In this Jan. 23, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidates, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, right, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney share a laugh during a break in a Republican presidential debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. Romney and Paul rarely acknowledge each other in the Republican presidential race, focusing their attention and attacks on rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum instead. That curious detente will be tested in Maine's caucuses Saturday, where Romney's reputation as a political shape shifter is set to go head-to-head with Paul's quirky but consistent set of libertarian beliefs. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Michigan is getting more attention from Republican presidential contenders than Arizona though both states share a Feb. 28 primary date and have virtually the same number of convention delegates, but that changes Wednesday, at least for a day.

That’s when Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum appear together on a stage in a Phoenix suburb for a CNN debate, and that’s to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s liking.

The Republican National Committee last fall sanctioned an Arizona debate at the urging of Brewer, who said it would focus attention on Arizona issues and concerns.

“It’s a big win for Arizona and a big win for America so that we can have our issues discussed,” she said at the time. Spokesman Matthew Benson said recently that Brewer hopes the debate hits on topics such as illegal immigration and states’ rights.

But of the four major GOP contenders, only Romney so far has campaigned in Arizona in recent weeks, though Santorum has scheduled several Arizona events immediately before the debate and Paul plans a fundraiser the morning after.

But for the most part, Michigan has received more attention, particularly from Romney and Santorum as they battled for delegates in a more populous Rust Belt state where Romney was born and his father was governor.

“Both are going to be battling it out in Michigan whereas Romney has a substantial advantage in Arizona,” said Rob Haney, Republican Party chairman in Maricopa county, home to about three of every five registered Republicans in the state.

Romney is thought to have an advantage partly because the state is home to many Mormons. He’s also got by far the most endorsements from prominent politicians, though Brewer has yet to announce a favorite.

The candidates’ calculations on where to spend time and money also must consider that Michigan allots most of its delegates on the basis of winning its 14 congressional districts. Arizona is winner-take-all statewide, so there’s little incentive for a candidate to work the state hard without a realistic chance of winning.

“You come in second places in Arizona, you come out with a goose egg,” said Bruce Ash, a Republican National Committee member for the state.

Another factor: About a fourth of the Republican voters in the state’s two most populous counties had already cast early ballots by Friday. That means further campaigning — and even the debate — won’t impact their choices.

The Arizona debate will be the first in over three weeks and might prove to be the last in a lineup of at least 20 such joint appearances by at least four Republican contenders since last May.

On Thursday, CNN called off a debate scheduled for March 1 in Georgia after at least two of the candidates said they would not attend.

As the campaign now dives into multiple states at a time, it only gets harder to find dates and places that work for all candidates, said Nathan Sproul, an Arizona political consultant who is working for Romney’s campaign.

Unlike months past when candidates zeroed in on only a few states, “now you start spreading the map out,” said Sproul, a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. “To try to align their calendars and schedules to be in one location is much more difficult.”

Romney’s recent visit probably represents him “not wanting to leave any state untouched” because of any loss or near-miss would damage perceptions of him as front-runner, said Richard Herrera, an Arizona State University associate professor of political science.

Arizona’s location along the U.S.-Mexico border and its role as a major entry point for illegal crossings means border security and illegal immigration are likely topics for the debate and pre-primary campaigning, said Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political science professor.

However, “like much of the country, we’re going to be talking about the economy. We’re going to be talking about jobs,” Solop said.

Arizona was one of the states hardest hit by the housing collapse that began in 2007, with 250,000 homes lost to foreclosure. The real estate market remains weak, with more half of the homeowners owing more on their homes than they are worth.

“That kind of depressing economic news trumps other kinds of issues,” Sproul said.

Arizona’s primary falls on Feb. 28 under a state law that allowed a governor to move the date up but not back. Brewer considered doing so on the theory that an even earlier primary would garner even more attention for the date.

But she abandoned that idea last fall in a decision she announced simultaneously with Republican Party officials sanctioning the Arizona debate. It was widely perceived to be a trade-off, but she and Republican Party officials denied it.

“There was no deal,” said Benson, the governor’s chief spokesman.

But because Arizona’s primary is still being held too early under party rules, the state gives up half of its 58 convention delegates, leaving it with 29. Michigan also is in violation, so it gets only 30 delegates.

Despite the greater attention now being paid to Michigan, Ash said Brewer’s decision to keep the Feb. 28 primary date is working out well for the state.

“The governor has achieved her goals in spades” with the debate and Arizona’s primary both being held before the March 6 contests known as Super Tuesday, Ash said. “Gosh, this could be the last debate of the entire season.”

And moving up the primary to late January, as Brewer considered, “would have further messed up the entire primary schedule,” he said. “It would have caused a lot of chaos.”

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