Preview: Arizona’s GOP debate

What to expect in tonight’s debate

The 20th GOP debate this season begins tonight at 8 p.m. Hosted by CNN and the Arizona Republican Party, candidates Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul will be in attendance.

It’s been almost a month since the last GOP debate, but Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are back for the last debate before Super Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CNN.

Hosted by CNN and the Arizona Republican Party, this also marks the first primary in which Santorum is a frontrunner. Although Santorum has won three of the last four primaries, Romney is leading in recent Arizona polls.

Wednesday’s NBC News/Marist survey showed Romney on top with 43 percent, with Santorum following with 27 percent. The CNN/Time/ORC poll released Tuesday showed Romney ahead by a much slimmer margin: 36 percent to Santorum’s 32 percent. Gingrich and Paul are trailing in both polls, with less than 20 percent each.

According to CNN’s experts, Wednesday’s debate is likely to see the other candidates challenge Santorum on his recent rise in popularity. In the last debate, Romney and Gingrich were the frontrunners, with Romney winning Florida and Gingrich winning South Carolina. Since then, Gingrich hasn’t won anything, and Romney’s wins are becoming less frequent.

“This will be the first debate where Santorum is the main attraction. The attacks should come from all three other candidates,” said Gentry Collins, a former political director for the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

In a CNN article by Paul Steinhauser, he cites one of the biggest questions of the night will be can Santorum take what the other candidates throw at him or will he appear weak?

Major planned talking points include immigration, job growth and the economy, however, CNN hopes to discuss topics not yet covered in the 19 previous debates. Questions will come from the moderator, CNN’s John King, the audience and social media.

Wednesday’s debate is the last before Arizona’s Feb. 28 primary, but Super Tuesday isn’t far behind. Seven states are having their primaries that day, including Ohio. When Santorum visited Akron last week, he won 74 percent of 1,068 secret ballot straw poll. We’ll see where they each stand come Thursday.

Contact Meghan Bogardus at [email protected] and Lindsy Neer at [email protected].