With focus on Michigan, debate is a consolation prize for Arizona

Tonight's GOP debate is shaping up as a big one, falling just before important primaries in Michigan and Arizona and ahead of the Super Tuesday extravaganza on March 6.

It is also a consolation prize of sorts for the Grand Canyon State, which won the opportunity to host the nationally televised session after backing down from a threat to jump the queue and hold its vote on Jan. 31.

The two major parties had laid out a schedule that reserved the first month of voting for just four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The hope was to forestall a mad rush to the front of the calendar and introduce a bit of order and deliberation to the nominating process. But several states ignored the rules and eyed a move ahead, in hopes of garnering more notice and enhancing their import.

"I would like an early primary if at all possible. I think that kind of highlights Arizona a lot more," the state's GOP governor, Jan Brewer, said last fall. "But, depending on what we can negotiate as far as what's good for Arizona and what's good for the country as a whole … I'm open."

Republicans in Florida were less selfless. They ignored sanctions from the national party, sacrificed half the state's delegates and pushed forward to grab that Jan. 31 date. The state was rewarded with 10 days of lavish attention from the Republican candidates and millions in advertising from the free-spending "super PACs" that support them.

Arizona has not fared as well. The GOP hopefuls, save for Mitt Romney, have pretty much ignored the state, scheduling a few appearances around tonight's debate, but otherwise devoting most of their attention -- and spending -- to Michigan, which votes along with Arizona next Tuesday.

The hope is that candidates will at least address some issues of local concern in tonight's debate. The foreclosure crisis is a big one; Arizona has been one of the worst victims of the housing and construction crunch.

Immigration is another big issue. Arizona is the main gateway for illegal entry into the United States, and lawmakers have responded with some of the toughest laws on the books.

One matter that local Republicans would probably prefer to ignore is the unfolding scandal surrounding Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.

The hard-liner on illegal immigration has denied allegations that he threatened a former lover, a Mexican national, with deportation to keep him quiet about their relationship. The story broke last Friday and Babeu, a candidate for Congress, subsequently resigned from a volunteer position with Romney's Arizona campaign.


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