GOP candidates argue over national, Arizona issues

February 22, 2012

The four remaining GOP presidential candidates sparred in Mesa on Wednesday night. The CNN debate addressed issues critical to many Arizonans, including immigration and border security. But much of the debate was taken up with national policy, and there was little discussion of job creation.

CNN Arizona Debate The CNN Arizona Republican presidential debate was held Wednesday in Mesa. (Photo courtesy City of Mesa)

The debate began with a question from the audience about how to control the national deficit. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum answered first, and was immediately challenged by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Romney has long been viewed as the front runner in the Republican race, and Santorum is the latest in a series of alternatives who have been seen as Romney's chief rival. For a good deal of the debate, Romney and Santorum sparred directly.

The four men tackled issues including congressional earmarks, bailouts, foreign policy, and public education.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul was asked to explain an ad his campaign put out questioning Santorum's fiscal conservatism. A smiling Paul responded that Santorum is "a fake." Paul also said that the United States should be less concerned with the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and more concerned with the border between the United States and Mexico.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also mentioned the border, saying it was "utterly stupid" to think that the U.S. can't manage its southern boundary. Gingrich also decried people who try to create solutions for managing the current federal government, which he characterized as a "disaster." He called for creating an entirely new, modern system of government, and for the repeal of current civil service laws.

A question submitted via CNN's website asking the candidates about their support for birth control drew some groans, although they ended up discussing birth control--and, more broadly, religious freedoms--for several minutes. Romney said religion in the United States has been under attack during the current administration.

When Romney highlighted that the Massachusetts budget was balanced during his term as governor, Santorum shot back that Romney was constitutionally required to do so. "Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years," Santorum said. "Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States?"

Though the debate was held in the heavily Mormon city of Mesa, LDS candidate Romney made no reference to his own faith. In fact, he repeatedly highlighted his defense of the rights and freedoms of Catholic institutions during his service as governor. Only in his final answer did Romney make vague reference to the fact that there may be things in his background that would cause voters to select another candidate.

Republican voters head to the polls in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

(You can read a transcript of the full debate here.)

Updated 2/22/2011 10:17 p.m.

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