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Weekend Debate Doubleheader Preview: Santorum May Relish the Attention

Major League baseball gave up scheduled doubleheaders decades ago, but the Republican presidential contest is serving up what amounts to one this weekend on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. The remaining contenders will face off at 9 p.m., on Saturday night at Anselm College in Manchester. The same sextet will repeat the exercise less than 12 hours later on NBC’s “Meet the Press” at 9 a.m., on Sunday. But while some observers will be looking for signs of fatigue on the weary candidates, the main focus will be on two men: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

The pair were separated by only eight votes in the final results in Iowa this past Tuesday, and both are hoping for strong performances this weekend in order to maintain their momentum. Romney is a prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire and will, as he largely has done in the past, try to remain above the fray and concentrate his fire on President Obama. While Santorum is in no position to challenge Romney for the top spot in the Granite State, if he can somehow parlay the buzz about Iowa into a second place finish that would put him in a strong position for the crucial contest in South Carolina on January 15. That means he, and the rest of the field  — and especially Newt Gingrich, who blames Romney for the collapse of his campaign — will probably be attacking Romney in the two debates. But Romney won’t be the only one in the crosshairs. Both Rick Perry and Ron Paul will likely concentrate their fire on Santorum as they try to keep him from turning the GOP battle into a two-man race.

Perry, who seemed to be considering abandoning his campaign after his disastrous fifth place finish in Iowa, needs to cut Santorum down to size if he is to have a shot at holding on to his share of the social conservative vote. Paul is running in second place but might be vulnerable to a late charge from Santorum. Both Perry and Santorum will blast the former Pennsylvania senator as a “big government conservative” who supported earmarks and is part of the Washington problem rather than the solution.

But the problem for Perry and Paul is this is the first time in the series of GOP debates that Santorum will not fight for attention. I expect him to relish the attacks, which will give him more time to make his own points. Instead of diminishing him, the blasts at Santorum may help more than they hurt in much the same way the focus on Romney has reinforced his position as the frontrunner. Indeed, the best thing that could happen to Santorum this weekend will be a barrage from lesser candidates that will only confirm what the latest polls have already told us: Santorum’s surge may just be getting started.


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