Live blog: GOP candidates spar in Arizona debate http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2012/02/gop-presidential-debate-live-romney-santorum-/1
By Catalina Camia, USA TODAY
Updated 10:02 p.m. ET
We live blogged the 20th GOP presidential debate, held in Arizona ahead of Tuesday's primaries there and in Michigan.
It was the first time Rick Santorum was center-stage as the national polling leader, and his three rivals hit him on issues such as earmarks, his record on federal spending, and changing his position on the No Child Left Behind law.
Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also sparred over immigration, the government's bailout of the auto industry and what to do about nuclear weapons development in Iran.
USA TODAY's Susan Page and Jackie Kucinich will have complete coverage in Thursday's editions. Follow highlights from the live blog by scrolling down:
9:56 p.m. ET
Santorum says the biggest misconception about him is the notion that he can't beat Obama. "People are looking for someone who can do a lot with a little," he says. "We've got the programs, the plans and we can win and defeat Barack Obama and govern this country."
That ends the 20th presidential debate.
9:53 p.m. ET
Gingrich says he wishes the American people could know about the amount of work it took for him to get welfare reform through Congress.
Romney says it's time to "restore America's promise" and calls for "fundamental change" in Washington. He says he's going to answer the question the way he wants it, choosing to ignore what is the biggest misconception about him.
"I believe I have the passion, commitment and the skills to turn America around," he says.
9:50 p.m. ET
The debate is wrapping up. CNN's John King asks: What is the biggest misconception about you?
Paul says it's the "perpetuation of the myth by the media that I can't win." He says he doesn't hear that from his supporters.
9:46 p.m ET
Paul says there is no authority in the Constitution for the government to be involved in educaton. He turns his attention Santorum's answer, saying it's wrong to "go along to get along." Paul says you don't take "an oath of the party," it's an oath to uphold the Constitution.
9:45 p.m. ET
Romney says No Child Left Behind needs some changing, but praises Bush for standing up to the teachers' unions and trying to implement school choice for parents.
Gingrich says charter schools are a step in the right direction, on the larger issue of what is the proper role for government in education. "I would urge states to return most of the power back to the parents." he says.
9:42 p.m. ET
An audience member asks about No Child Left Behind and education policy. Santorum says he supported the law even though it was "against the principles I believed in."
"I made a mistake," he said, explaining he "took one for the team" because it was the principal policy advocated by President George W. Bush. Santorum advocates both the federal government and the states should get out of education and let parents decide what to do. He home schools his kids.
9:40 p.m. ET
Paul makes the case that there is an economic argument against going to war, as well as the moral and constitutional arguments. "I'm going to win this argument for economic reasons," he says.
9:39 p.m. ET
Romney says he agrees with Gingrich and Santorum on Syria and Iran. "Syria has a leader that's in real trouble. We ought to grab that like the best thing we've ever seen," suggesting Americans need to help get rid of the Assad regime.
9:36 p.m. ET
Gingrich says the first thing he'd do is create a new energy policy, as a way to deal with oil-producing countries. "You have to set the stage of not being afraid of what will happen in the region," he says.
"This is an administration that as long as you're America's enemy, you're safe," Gingrich says.
9:34 p.m. ET
The topic is now what to do about the situation in Syria. Santorum blasts the "timidness" of Obama, and he talks about Syria, Iraq and Iran as an "axis." He says Syria is a "puppet state" of Iran.
"He's afraid to stand up to Iran," Santorum says about Obama. "He isn't going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. We need a new president or we will have a cataclysmic situation."
9:33 p.m. ET
Paul disagrees with his rivals. "There is no evidence" that Iran has a nuclear weapon, he says. "We do not have proof they have a weapon."
"We're ready to go to war. I say going to war rapidly like this is risky and it's reckless," Paul says, arguing that if the Iran situation is that important then go to Congress and ask for a formal declaration of war.
9:30 p.m. ET
Santorum says a "very clear message" needs to be sent to Iran about the "seriousness" of the American people that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons. He jokes that if you want to be right on a foreign policy position, do whatever is opposite that Vice President Biden says to do.
9:28 p.m. ET
Romney wants to answer the question on Iran.
"The price of gasoline pales in comparison to Ahmadinejad having nuclear weapons," Romney says, arguing Obama should have placed "crippling" sanctions on Iran.
9:26 p.m. ET
The topic is Iran's nuclear threat. "I do believe there are moments when you pre-empt," Gingrich says.
"You have an absolutely moral obligation to defend the lives of your people" if a "madman" has nuclear weapons, he says.
9:24 p.m. ET
Santorum says there are different roles for women in combat. He explains a comment he made recently that he had "concerns" about the new Pentagon rules. "We should look at the proper roles for everybody in combat," he says.
9:24 p.m. ET
The topic now is an expanded combat role for women in the military. Gingrich says it's more appropriate to ask military leaders in the field about the combat role than the "social engineering" of the Obama administration.
The Pentagon recently unveiled new rules that formally opened thousands of jobs as medics, radio operators, intelligence officers and communications officers in battalions.
9:19 p.m. ET
Describe yourself in one word: Paul says consistent. Santorum says courage. Romney says resolute. Gingrich says cheerful.
9:14 p.m. ET
The question now: Is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio right when he says the GOP needs to change its rhetoric on immigration? Gingrich pivots to how it's difficult to pass a comprehensive immigration bill -- dealing with everything from visas to guest workers and other issues.
9:11 p.m. ET
Santorum says he wouldn't require homeowners to do something like the E-Verify program when hiring household help. He calls for enforcing existing immigration laws, and deporting illegal immigrants here in the United States.
9:09 p.m. ET
Romney is touting the E-Verify system that requires employers to verify the legal status of workers, then suggests Arizona and other states are right for passing their own immigration laws. "The right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states trying to do the job Barack Obama isn't doing," he says.
9:08 p.m. ET
The camera pans to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Gingrich supporter, in the audience. Gingrich is defending the border fence. He says he would finish the fence by January 2014 and ask the border governors to support his efforts, and shift resources from the Department of Homeland Security to the border.
9:05 p.m. ET
An audience member asks the candidates what will they do to secure the border. Paul says a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border is the wrong idea. "Why isn't it trespassing," Paul asks when an illegal immigrant comes across the border.
9:04 p.m. ET
Santorum explains he supported Specter because at the time he was poised to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and vowed to support President Bush's judicial nominees. (Specter, who switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party, was defeated in a Democratic primary in 2010.)
"I did the right thing for our country," Santorum says.
9:03 p.m. ET
Santorum finds a way to bring up "Romneycare" -- the Massachusetts health law -- and point out it was the "model for Obamacare." Romney says: "Wait a minute."
Romney shoots back to Santorum: Don't forget you endorsed me four years ago. Then he points out the differences between the Massachusetts bill and the national law. "I will repeal Obamacare," he says.
Romney then essentially blames Santorum for "Obamacare," because Santorum supported Arlen Specter, a moderate who voted for the president's health care legislation.
8:57 p.m. ET
"When you have a government as the central provider of services you inevitably move toward tyranny ... and move towards the coercion of the state," Gingrich says.
Paul makes the point that if a senator -- he means Santorum -- voted for funding for Planned Parenthood then he voted for birth control and voted for abortion. Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest provider of abortions.
Santorum explains he wanted funding for abstinence programs, which Paul says the government shouldn't be doing.
8:53 p.m. ET
Romney says: "We have to have a president who's willing to say that the best opportunity an individual can give their unborn child ... is to be born to a mother and father."
8:52 p.m. ET
Paul, an obstetrician, says birth control pills "can't be blamed for the immorality of our society."
8:50 p.m. ET
Santorum explains what he talked about the "dangers" of contraception. "We're seeing a problem in our culture with respect that children are being raised by children," he says. "Bottom line is: We have a problem in this country and the family is fracturing."
"The left gets all upset: 'Oh, look at him talking about these things,' " Santorum says. "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it."
8:47 p.m. ET
Romney says Obama is making attacks on "religious tolerance, religious freedom" as he discusses the new policy requiring insurers of religious-affliated institutions to provide free contraceptives.
"His position on religious tolerance is clear and ... people want a president" who respects the Constitution, he says.
8:46 p.m. ET
The topic is birth control and the question draws boos from the audience. Gingrich jumps in: "There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religious activities," Gingrich says, before lashing out on the "elite media."
8:40 p.m. ET
Paul says he doesn't like the idea of "good" bailouts and "bad" bailouts.
8:38 p.m. ET
Romney charges that the Obama administration essentially gave Chrysler and GM to "the unions."
Santorum says Romney isn't making an "apples to apples comparison," when he talks about bailouts for the airline industry or the steel industry in the same vein as the assistance for the auto industry.
8:37 p.m. ET
Romney is explaining his support of "managed bankruptcy" for the auto industry. On the Wall Street bailouts, he said he was concerned that if the government didn't intervene, then all banks would go down.
8:35 p.m. ET
We've moved on to the government bailouts of the auto industry. Santorum says he's opposed to government intervention to help an industry. "I felt having the government come in ... and have huge influence on an industry would be damaging," he says, explaining his opposition to the Wall Street bailouts and auto bailouts.
"I believe in markets, not just when they're convenient for me," Santorum says, noting he was more principled than Romney.
8:32 p.m. ET
Paul says the problem with earmarks is Congress itself. "The reason we get into trouble is the irresponsibility of Congress," he says, arguing the best thing to do is "vote against the bill."
8:30 p.m. ET
The exchange on earmarks is getting lively. Santorum says Romney is "not entitled to misrepresent the facts" on earmarks, before advocating a line-item veto for president.
8:29 p.m. ET
Santorum is explaining his stance on earmarks, and slams Romney for doing exactly what Romney is criticizing Santorum for.
Santorum notes Romney asked for earmarks for the Salt Lake City Olympics and as Massachusetts governor.
Romney says he would put a ban on earmarks because "it opens the door on excessive spending."
"The earmark process is broken," he said, while defending his own requests for earmarks. "While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere," Romney says as he turns to Santorum.
8:23 p.m. ET
Gingrich suggests Romney is playing "class warfare" with his plan on capital gains. He notes candidates keep talking about "managing the current government" and notes the current government is a "disaster."
8:22 p.m. ET
Romney is explaining his remark at the CPAC conference that he is "severely conservative." He says that means "strict."
"My policies in Massachusetts were conservative," he says, before launching into various policies he promoted and then a discussion of his private-sector record. "You can't be anything but a fiscal conservative in business unless you balance your budget."
8:21 p.m. ET
Paul says it's a "cop out" to compare yourself to others in Congress and notes Congress gets a low job approval rating of 9%. "Conservatives are quite pleased to spending money overseas but if you're a strict fiscal conservative ... you can't be for that kind of stuff," he says.
8:20 p.m ET
Santorum responds by saying The Weekly Standard says he was the "most fiscally conservative" while in Congress. "I was a leader on taking on tough issues," he says, before noting he did all this while representing Pennsylvania and not one of the most conservative districts in Texas.
"We had a strong record in a tough state to be a conservative," Santorum says.
8:18 p.m. ET
Paul explains his new ad hitting Santorum as a "fake" conservative. "Because he's a fake," he says. The Texas congressman says candidates often say they're conservative when they run for office, but do something else when in office.
"I've never voted for a budget deficit. I never voted to increase the national debt," Paul says. "This idea of being fiscally conservative now that we're running for office ... I mean, it loses credibility," Paul says.
8:15 p.m. ET
Romney gets his chance to plug his plan to cut tax rates by 20% across the board, and hits back on Santorum. Gingrich is now responding to Arizona Sen. John McCain's charge that he made earmarks an art form while House speaker.
8:14 p.m. ET
Santorum defends his record, says he wishes he didn't vote for the No Child Left Behind education law. He says look at his record "of never having raised taxes," something he says Romney has done. "I"m going to represent 100% of Americans. We're not raising taxes on anybody.
Romney says Santorum is mischaracterizing his record.
8:13 p.m. ET
Romney points out Santorum voted five times to raise the debt limit, without getting spending cuts. "I've lived balancing budgets," he says, touting his business record.
Romney talks about going through every federal program to look for cuts and ways they can be improved, and then says he'll cut the federal workforce and the pay of federal employees.
8:10 p.m. ET
First question from an audience member: What are you going to do to reduce the debt? Santorum goes first, highlighting his plan to cut $5 trillion from the budget and gets applause for saying he'll repeal "Obamacare." He promises not to cut defense spending.
8:07 p.m. ET
We're doing the customary introductions, and Romney and Gingrich start out by jabbing President Obama.
Updated 8 p.m. ET
Here we go. CNN's John King will moderate.
Our original post begins here:
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are locked in a high-stakes battle, especially in Romney's native state of Michigan. A new poll tonight by the Detroit Free Press shows them essentially tied.
Romney is trying to reclaim front-runner status and win over Republicans who aren't convinced of his conservative credentials. After surging in national and statewide polls, Santorum is trying to keep his momentum and show he can take on President Obama in the fall.
Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul will also be participating tonight in the 20th -- and possibly final -- debate in what has been a volatile race for the GOP nomination.
CNN coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET from the Mesa Arts Center.