Republican Presidential Debate

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ASU Pollster Bruce Merrill shares his observations and analysis of the Republican presidential debate held in Mesa.

Ted Simons: A new poll shows President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney neck and neck in Arizona. The public policy polling survey, a Democratic polling company based in North Carolina, has Obama and Romney tied at 47%. The same survey shows the president trailing Rick Santorum in Arizona by one point, which equates to a virtual tie since the difference is well within the poll's margin of error.

Ted Simons: the Republican presidential candidates debated in Mesa last night, ahead of next week's election. Here to talk about the debate and what was said and what was not said is ASU pollster Bruce Merrill. Good to see.

Bruce Merrill: You good to be here.

Ted Simons: What are your thoughts?

Bruce Merrill: I thought it went pretty much like script. If you look at the pattern in terms of what's happened so far, one candidate gets momentum, in this case it was Santorum, he's gone out in the national polls, in front, and what happens is the others gang up on that person and try to knock them down. And that's basically what happened last night. I think Romney, Gingrich, I think Santorum all really piled on -- they piled on Santorum. And you know, it was effective. I do not think Santorum reacted particularly well. He was put on defense, he acted very defensively. And so I think that is what kind of what the others intended to do and were able to do.

Ted Simons: A lot of consensus opinion was that Santorum didn't bring his A-game. Was it not bringing your A-game, or just as you mentioned, being ambushed?

Bruce Merrill: No, if he was ambushed he shouldn't have been. My point is this is what's happened in every one of the debates so far. This is what they did to Romney when Romney was ahead. I just think that he really -- he looked tired, and once you put somebody on the defense and they have to keep answering questions, it doesn't project a person that's really out in front.

Ted Simons: Not only, that but he had to do a lot of explaining, he had to explain himself a lot and he did so with what some might call Washington, DC speak. A lot of political this, a lot of legislative that, and the sort of thing that perhaps for some would say this guy knows his way around capitol hill, but for others he's a Washington insider.

Bruce Merrill: Sure. It's these phrases like a Washington insider, that are most important. If they can really pin that on him, as you've seen today, Romney is really following up on that. Basically making the distinction that he is not a Washington insider that Santorum is.

Ted Simons: Was it a decisive win for Romney last night?

Bruce Merrill: I don't think it was a decisive win for any of them. I think they did all right, there were no big faux pas, but there was no home runs. I think it was important in terms of the primary coming up next Tuesday, because a month ago Romney was ahead anywhere from 12-15 points. The last two, three polls we've seen show that it's virtually a dead even race, which means Santorum has had some momentum. Now, if this race is very close next Tuesday, then Santorum's failure to deliver could be just enough to allow Romney to win.

Ted Simons: Interesting. You mentioned that the attacks were on Santorum, so Romney makes the case against Santorum. Did Romney, has Romney made the case for Romney?

Bruce Merrill: No. He hasn't. I mean, his problem is he has not been able to connect with the right wing of the Republican party, the evangelical's Tea Party wing. This isn't uncommon in Arizona particularly. Remember Senator McCain had the same problem, really. The very conservative people never really felt the senator was a true conservative. And if you really look at what has happened in all of these debates, and all of the primaries so far, Romney gets somewhere between 25-35% of the vote, and the support in the polls. That means about 70% don't support him. But as long as you have three conservatives dividing that 70%, it allows Romney to prevail. So if the right wing really wanted to defeat Romney, if they really want someone else, they should cohese behind one candidate, but they're not doing that.

Ted Simons: What about Gingrich?

Bruce Merrill: I thought he did better. I don't think he made any new supporters, but I think he did all right. He looked more relaxed, and last time he looked awful.

Ted Simons: A little more happy?

Bruce Merrill: He described himself as cheerful.

Ted Simons: Yes. Ron Paul gets lots of cheering. I'm not sure if people know what they're cheering about, because he's definitely different than the other candidates. What is his role, what's going on with him in this race?

Bruce Merrill: He's really not a conservative Republican. In fact, he doesn't get very high conservative ratings from those groups that rate him. But he's what's called a constitutionalist or really an extreme libertarian. And he's going to get his 15% of the vote no matter what happens. And the danger, he frankly has no chance to get the nomination. But it's important for him to get his message out there. And the thing that could be the biggest threat to the Republican party, Obama is going to have some threats like $5 gas in September. But the biggest threat to the Republicans is if he decides to run as an Independent, he's going to have his 15%, and most of those are people that would vote Republican.

Ted Simons: Was there an ah-ha moment last night?

Bruce Merrill: I don't really think so. I mean, most of the rating people have kind of given them anywhere from a B to a C plus for all of them. And I really didn't think there was. I thought -- you know, Romney, the thing he comes across well is his staff does a pretty good job preparing him with information that's pretty factual that he can really use to put people on the defense. And that shows really a lot of good staff work.

Ted Simons: But this was the 20th, the 20th debate. Did it differ much from the other debates other than the look on the set? They looked odd, the set was odd. But what difference did the debate make?

Bruce Merrill: I don't think it made any -- unless as I say, this election in Arizona is razor thin, it may be that Romney stopped Santorum's momentum enough to edge him out. The key thing to look for on Tuesday is turnout. The lower the turnout, the more likely it is that there will be a Santorum victory. And the reason is that the ideologues, the evangelicals, the Tea Partiers, they all vote. They're going to the polls no matter what. So if the turnout is very low, they have more power than when the turnout is high. As the turnout increases, you're bringing more moderates into the political system, they would be expected to go a little more for Romney.

Ted Simons: Bruce, always a pleasure, good to have you.

Bruce Merrill: Good to be here.

Bruce Merrill:ASU Pollster;

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