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Which Rick Shows Up Tonight in Arizona?

Tonight’s presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona, is rightly be touted as a crucial moment in the Republican race. Much has changed in the weeks since the GOP candidates were brought together in front of the television cameras. Rick Santorum, whose strong showings in the Florida debates were not thought to signify any real hope of his being the nominee, is now leading in the national polls. Mitt Romney, who was hoping to create an aura of inevitability, is now struggling to stay ahead of Santorum in his home state of Michigan, and Newt Gingrich has sunk to last place in some surveys and must fight the belief he no longer has a ghost of a chance of victory.

But while Santorum will enjoy being in the center of the stage rather, as up until now he has been relegated to the sides, he will also have to cope with being the object of attacks from both Romney and Gingrich in a way that he has never had to deal with in the many debates that have preceded this one. While all the participants, save Ron Paul, have something to prove tonight, the outcome may turn largely on one question: which Rick Santorum shows up in Mesa? Will it be the confident, relaxed and personable Santorum who has done so well in the previous encounters and whose image is as a caring father and clean politician who is not willing to engage in mudslinging? Or will it be the angry culture warrior whose obsessions with gays, contraception and abortion have become the liberal caricature of conservatism in the last week?

Santorum will likely be pressed tonight to explain his views on all these issues as well as his views of Satan’s role in public life. The trick for him will be whether he can stick to his views on social issues without coming across as the sort of person whom mainstream America fears will impose his personal beliefs on the nation. Conservatives want a candidate who shares their values, but most Republicans understand the last thing their party needs is to allow the 2012 election to be a referendum on the culture war about sex rather than on President Obama’s failed record on the economy and foreign policy.

Until now, Santorum has had the luxury of being able to concentrate his energies on pointing out the hypocrisy of both Romney and Gingrich on Obamacare and highlighting the weaknesses in their stands on taxes and spending. Tonight it will be his turn to be the focus of attacks, and his reaction to this will be instructive. If he is able to avoid being sidetracked by attacks and to avoid sounding defensive, he can emerge even stronger and place himself in position for a sweep of both Arizona and Michigan.

But if he is goaded into showing us the less attractive side of his personality and comes across as the public scold who will provide Democrats with campaign fodder, it may signal the beginning of the end of his short stay at the top of the GOP race.