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Arizona Republican debate: Winners and losers

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Through the first four contests in the GOP presidential race, there were more than 20 debates. For the next 14 contests (at least), there will be only one debate.

That debate was held Wednesday night in Arizona, and its impact on the GOP presidential race will become clear in the days ahead.

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Here’s our snapshot of the debate, presented as usual in the form of winners and losers:

WINNERS

* Ron Paul: Who knew the Texas congressman was such an attack dog? While we’ve seen flashes of it in previous debates, he really went after Rick Santorum on Wednesday and got himself plenty of camera time in the process.

The takeaway if you were seeing Paul for the first time: ‘I’m not a politician like these guys. I’m principled.’ He used Santorum as a counter-balance in that effort, and it worked.

* Mitt Romney: It wasn’t his strongest performance, but he did what he had to do for the here-and-now — knock Santorum down a few pegs.

Romney’s performance isn’t likely to re-inspire confidence in his frontrunner status, which is probably more his long-term concern. But he bought himself time to work on that, at the very least, by stunting Santorum’s momentum.

* Debates: This might have been the last debate of the 2012 GOP presidential race, but even if it was, it’s been a very good year for debates generally.

The Republican race has turned several times thanks to the results of these debates, and despite some questions about the enthusiasm for the GOP canddiates, there was unprecedented enthusiasm for the debates, which drew record TV audiences.

There may be a call for fewer debates four years from now, but if anything, 2012 makes a strong case for more debates.

LOSERS

* Rick Santorum: For a guy who finally gained frontrunner status after a long haul, he didn’t handle it very well on the debate stage. As we noted Wednesday night, many of his counterpunches were difficult to follow and went way too far into the weeds.

“I didn’t follow all of that,” Romney said after Santorum spent a while explaining the earmarking process.

Neither did the audience and most voters, which was Santorum’s problem.

* Arlen Specter: This guy didn’t exactly have a great end to his political career, and now his name is again being dragged through the mud in a GOP presidential primary.

It continues to surprise The Fix how much vitriol there is for Santorum’s eight-year-old endorsement of Specter in the 2004 Senate race. But it’s a real thing in conservative circles, and Romney was smart to broach it.

* Congress: Want to know more about the earmarking process? Just watch a replay of Wednesday night’s debate.

What’s that? You don’t want to know more about earmarks? Of course you don’t.

Some of Santorum’s weakest moments came when he tried to justify his actions by pointing to how Congress works. The problem is that people don’t think Congress works, period. Paul took advantage of this; Santorum did not.

View Photo Gallery: The debate, sponsored by CNN and held at the Mesa Arts Center, is the 20th of the GOP primary race and perhaps the final showdown. It came as Santorum has been eroding Romney’s lead in several key states, including Arizona and Michigan.

* Arizona: Besides a question or two about immigration, was there any indication that this debate was in Arizona?

Generally, these debates will include a good amount of local flavor. Poor Arizona broke the Republican Party rules by moving its primary into February and got its own debate — only to see the debate focus more on the other state holding its primary the same day as Arizona, Michigan.

Barbour says somebody else could still run: Haley Barbour, who is about as close to a Republican Party sage as they come, says it’s reasonable to think another candidate might yet get in the GOP presidential race.

“If the Republican primary voters continue to split up their votes in such a way that nobody is close to having a majority, then there is a chance that somebody else might get in,” Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi and former RNC chairman, told ABC News.

Barbour said that such a scenario is unlikely, but that it’s increasingly possible. He also said it’s possible that the GOP nominee won’t be known by the time of the GOP convention, but he said that might not be a bad thing.

“It is not accurate to say that a hotly contested convention is necessarily bad,” Barbour said. “I am not saying it is necessarily good, but I don’t think it is accurate to say it is necessarily bad. Let’s just see.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has also broached the idea of an open convention, says Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is the only GOP candidate who could enter the race late and compete. But he added that Daniels’s wife is against him running for president and would probably prevent it.

Fixbits:

The Grand Rapids, Mich., Press joins the Detroit News in backing Romney.

Another Michigan poll shows the race there within the margin of error. This one has Santorum at 37 percent and Romney at 34 percent.

Santorum super PAC benefactor Foster Friess says he is also looking at spending his money on top 2012 Senate races.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) challenges his party to rethink its approach to Latinos.

The Indiana election board will take up a challenge to Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R-Ind.) residency.

Texas Senate candidate and tea party favorite Ted Cruz won’t commit to backing Texas Sen. John Cornyn for Senate Republican Whip. A similar situation occurred in the 2010 Senate primary in Kentucky, when then-GOP candidate Rand Paul declined to back Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for GOP leader.

A new NBC/Marist poll in Michigan shows former congressman and Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra (R) losing ground after running a controversial Super Bowl ad. The poll shows him trailing Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) 53 percent to 32 percent. Most other polling had put his deficit around 10 percent or less.

The same pollster shows Rep. Jeff Flake (R) with an 11-point lead on former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona (D) in Arizona.

Must-reads:

Rick Santorum’s ‘phony theology’ criticism of Obama follows a familiar theme” — Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post

Why Running For President Is a Great Career Move” — Rick Newman, U.S. News and World Report

Read more from PostPolitics

Rick Santorum on defensive at Arizona debate

Fact-checking the CNN Republican debate

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