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Republicans Debate in Arizona as GOP Faces Backlash in State over Extremist, Anti-Immigrant Policies

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With Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the audience, leading Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum praised Arizona’s crackdown on immigration during a debate on Wednesday night. Romney vowed to drop the Obama administration’s immigration lawsuits against the state of Arizona on the first day of his presidency. Santorum said police across the country should be given “the opportunity to do what they’re doing here in Arizona and what Sheriff Arpaio was doing before he ran into some issues with the federal government.” Santorum’s comment comes just months after a federal Department of Justice investigation found “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” in Arpaio’s office. Arizona journalist Terry Greene Sterling says “Republican overreach” could lead to an Obama victory in Arizona in November. “What’s happened in Arizona is that the Arizona legislature has been taken over by the extreme right wing of the Arizona Republican Party. And an agenda of extremist bills has been passed and been proposed,” Greene Sterling says. “As a result, Democrats are saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. We think that we can win moderates and independents into our wing.'” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum repeatedly sparred Wednesday in what could be the last Republican presidential debate. Held in Mesa, Arizona, the debate comes less than a week before voters go to the polls in Arizona and Michigan and less than two weeks before Super Tuesday. Santorum was forced to repeatedly defend his voting record in the Senate and defended his use of earmarks to steer federal dollars to his district.

RICK SANTORUM: Congress has a role to play when it comes to appropriating money, and sometimes the president, the administration, doesn’t get it right. What happened was an abuse of the process. When that abuse occurred, I stepped forward, as Jim DeMint did, who, by the way, was an earmarker, as almost everybody else in Congress was. Why? Because Congress has a role of allocating resources when they think the administration has it wrong. I defended that at the time. I’m proud I defended it at the time, because I think they did make mistakes. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it. And as president, I would oppose earmarks.

JOHN KING: Governor?

MITT ROMNEY: I didn’t—I didn’t follow all of that, but I can tell you this: I would put a ban on earmarks. I think it opens the door to excessive spending, spending on projects that don’t need to be done. I think there are a lot of projects that have been voted for. You voted for the Bridge to Nowhere. I think these earmarks, we’ve had it with them. If Congress wants to vote in favor of a bill, that they should take that bill, bring it forward with committees, have people say—vote it up or down on the floor of the House and the Senate, have the president say yes or no, and move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum accused Romney of raising taxes and fees as governor of Massachusetts and using federal money to prop up the state’s universal healthcare law.

RICK SANTORUM: First off, number one, you funded Romneycare through federal tax dollars through Medicaid. I know it well. It’s called disproportionate share provider tax, about $400 million that you got from the federal taxpayers to underwrite Romneycare to make sure you didn’t have to raise taxes right away. Yes, Governor, you balanced the budget for four years. You have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget in four years. No great shakes. I’m all for—I’d like to see it federally. But don’t go around bragging about something you have to do. Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don’t think so.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Former sic Texas Congressman Ron Paul criticized Rick Santorum’s conservative record when he was asked by CNN’s John King, the debate moderator.

JOHN KING: You have a new television ad that labels him a “fake.” Why?

REP. RON PAUL: Because he’s a fake.

RICK SANTORUM: I’m real, Ron. I’m real.

REP. RON PAUL: Congratulations.

RICK SANTORUM: I’m real. Thank you.

REP. RON PAUL: No, I find it really fascinating that when people are running for office, they’re really fiscally conservative. When they’re in office, they do something different. Then when they explain themselves, they say, “Oh, I want to repeal that.” So, the senator voted for No Child Left Behind, but now—he voted for it, but now he’s running on the effort to get rid of it. So, I think the record is so bad, you know, with the politicians.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Congressman Ron Paul. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were also asked about their views on immigration by debate moderator King.

JOHN KING: Governor Romney, the border security is part of the equation. What to do about the—whether it’s eight or 11 million illegal immigrants in the country now is another part of the equation. And Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s with us tonight, from Maricopa County, he’s in the audience. He told me—told me this week here in Mesa—these are his words—it’s, quote, “political garbage, if you will, to not arrest illegals already in this country.” You’ve talked, Governor, about self-deportation, if businesses do their job asking for the right documents, that people will leave. But what about arresting? Should there be aggressive seek them out, find them and arrest them, as Sheriff Arpaio advocates?

MITT ROMNEY: The right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn’t doing, which—and I will drop those lawsuits on day one. I’ll also complete the fence. I’ll make sure we have enough Border Patrol agents to secure the fence. And I will make sure we have an E-Verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers and to check E-Verify. And if an employer hires someone that has not gone through E-Verify, they’re going to get sanctioned, just like they do for not paying their taxes. You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration. It’s time we finally did it.

RICK SANTORUM: I think what we need to do is to give law enforcement the opportunity to do what they’re doing here in Arizona and what Sheriff Arpaio was doing here before the—before he ran into some issues with the federal government, which is to allow folks to enforce the law here in this country, to allow people who are breaking the law, or suspicious of breaking the law, to be able to be detained and deported, if they’re found here in this country illegally, as well as those who are trying to seek employment. This is—this is enforcing not just upon the employer, but on those who are here illegally and trying to do things that are against the law, like seeking employment here.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the presidential debate and the race, we’re joined by two guests. Will Bunch is with us, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, author of its popular blog, “Attytood.” He has followed Rick Santorum’s political career for years, joining us from Philadelphia.

In Phoenix, Arizona, Terry Greene Sterling is with us, longtime journalist based in Arizona, contributing writer for The Daily Beast. She is writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Her last piece appears in Rolling Stone. It’s called “How GOP Overreach Put Arizona Back in Play.”

Why don’t you start there? How did GOP overreach put Arizona back in play?


Well, what’s happened in Arizona is that the Arizona legislature has been taken over by the extreme right wing of the Arizona Republican Party. And an agenda of extremist bills has been passed and been proposed. And as a result, Democrats are saying, “Hey, wait a minute. We think that we can win moderates and independents into our wing.” So they’ve a lot of money into research and signing up voters in Arizona and running moderate candidates that they hope will win Arizona for the Democrats in the fall.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, the defeat of Russell Pearce recently, is that a harbinger of what may be occurring? Because Arizona has always been seen as a solidly Republican state.

TERRY GREENE STERLING: Yes, Arizona has always been seen as a solidly Republican state, but what’s happening is the demographics of Arizona are changing, and the voter makeup of Arizona is changing. Arizona is now 30 percent Hispanic. And a number of young voters are now signing up at the polls.

Now, Russell Pearce was Arizona’s number one, premier conservative Tea Party senator. He was the sponsor of Senate Bill 1070, which is Arizona’s notorious immigration law, which makes it a state crime for an unauthorized immigrant to set foot on Arizona soil. As you know, that—that law will be heard in the Supreme Court. But it gave Arizona a black eye. And it—we are perceived in Arizona as über-conservative and racist. And businesses did not want to relocate in Arizona because of the law. It was boycotted by—you know, tourism was boycotted. And it caused a big problem for business. So, moderate Arizonans began to see that this law wasn’t the best thing, and they were tired of Pearce’s rhetoric. Hispanics launched a recall of Russell Pearce, the first in Arizona history, and the most powerful Republican in Arizona was toppled by a moderate Republican.

So, Democrats are seeing the toppling of Russell Pearce as emblematic of a shift in Arizona politics. They’re saying that moderates stretched their muscle with the Pearce recall, which no one thought really, at the beginning, could happen or was doable. And they’re saying, “If we run moderate candidates in Arizona, we will win moderate Republicans and independents to our side.” And so, their number one moderate candidate that they’re running is Richard Carmona, the former—the former U.S. surgeon general under George Bush II. And Carmona is running for Senate. Democrats feel that Carmona is very much like—is a moderate in the sense that Bruce Babbitt and Janet Napolitano were moderates. And Democrats feel that Arizonans vote not for party, but for the candidate. So they feel that with Carmona in the lead, they’re going to make a big—there’s going to be a big shift in Arizona politics.

Further, Arizona got another legislative seat in redistricting, when redistrict—when maps for congressional districts were redrawn. And Democrats now feel that they have a chance at five out of nine legislative seats.

Don’t forget also that Hispanics, for the most part, in Arizona are highly galvanized after the passage of SB 1070. And there was nothing that I heard in the debate last night that would bring Democrats into the Republican fold. Mr. Romney is supported by the Kansas Secretary of State, who endorsed him. The Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach actually wrote SB 1070, or Arizona’s immigration law. So, I didn’t hear anything at all last night that would bring Democrats into the Republican fold.

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Under Fire over Earmarks & Spending Record, Rick Santorum Seen as D.C. Insider, Culture Warrior

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