Arizona hosted a Republican presidential primary debate at the Mesa Arts Center Wednesday, where the four candidates debated national issues, with a brief discussion on border security.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul participated in the discussion moderated by CNN’s John King.
The candidates spent two hours discussing the economy, birth control, border security, growing nuclear threat in Iran and education.
Political science associate professor Richard Herrera said this debate was of considerable national importance in comparison to past Arizona presidential debates because of the lack of a defined front-runner.
“(Romney) lost the ability to sweep primaries and his donations have gone down, reflecting doubt by potential contributors whether he’s a viable candidate,” Herrera said.
He said Arizona’s presidential preference election could generate the front-runner that the Republican presidential campaign has lost.
“So that means (the Arizona primary) is important because it can really generate a lot of momentum for whoever wins,” Herrera said.
The Arizona Republican presidential preference election will take place Feb. 28.
Economy and Welfare
The candidates’ discussion of remedying the national economy involved the desire to cut entitlement programs.
Romney said he would look through current programs, decide if they are affordable and find other ways to finance important programs.
“I’m going to (keep) programs that are important but that can be better run at the state level through a block grant,” Romney said.
Santorum said he wanted to cut back on entitlements, such as food stamps and Medicaid, and wanted to get rid of “Obamacare.”
“There would be a time limit on welfare and a work requirement,” Santorum said. “These programs need to be transitional in nature. Our country is facing fiscal bankruptcy.”
Gingrich and Paul agreed the federal government should stay out of health care issues during the debate’s segment on current administration’s policies on implementing birth control coverage into employee insurance.
“When you have government as the central provider of services, you inevitably move towards tyranny because the government has power of force,” Gingrich said.
Romney and Santorum focused on the Obama administrations violation of the freedom of religion in his new contraception mandate, as well as the importance of stable families.
“(Obama’s) position on religious tolerance is clear,” Romney said. “It’s one of the reasons the people in this country are standing up to fight for their rights.”
The candidates’ brief discussion of border control revealed different approaches to a more secure, controlled border.
Gingrich said he wanted to continue developing the wall in production along the nation’s southern border.
“The further we have gone with the fence, the fewer people have broken into California,” Gingrich said.
Romney said he wanted to focus on a federal encouragement of current state immigration policy such as Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070.
“(I will) drop law suits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job the federal government isn’t doing,” Romney said.
As candidates discussed the nuclear threat in Iran, Romney, Santorum and Gingrich came to a consensus that the U.S. should be more intrusive in the matter.
“We simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weaponry,” Romney said. “(Obama) should put in place crippling sanctions against Iran.”
Paul said he disagreed with the other candidates’ offensive strategies and felt the existence of nuclear weapons in Iran had not been verified.
“I don’t want them to get a weapon but I think we’re encouraging them to get a weapon because they feel threatened,” Paul said. “I say going to war rapidly like this is risky and reckless.”
The candidates’ discussion of education focused on the nature of federal involvement in past programs such as No Child Left Behind.
The candidates agreed the federal government should pass education issues to the state rather than trying to regulate them.
Santorum said taking just the federal government out of education wasn’t enough.
“Not only do I believe the federal government should get out of the business of education, but I believe the state government should get out of the business of education,” he said.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Ron Paul’s title.