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Tonight’s Debate

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With Mitt Romney’s lead in South Carolina large and likely to grow with the addition of most of Jon Huntsman’s supporters headed his way, and with new endorsements arriving for Romney daily, tonight’s debate (at 9 PM EST on Fox News) presents Rick Santorum with a crucial opportunity to rally social conservatives to him as the alternative candidate to Mitt Romney.

No doubt some armchair strategists are urging Santorum to join in the attacks on Romney’s business background which, to the former Pennsylvania senator’s credit, he has refused to do. The best tactic is to assume the very wired, very informed electorate knows almost everything there is to know about the candidate and is now making any decision on the basis of who can beat President Obama.

This is a very different calculation from saying the other guy cannot beat Obama, but turns on demonstrating the line of attack and the skills to develop arguments and deploy them against the president. Romney has been doing just that, again and again, in almost every debate and I think it is why he has won the first two contests and leads in South Carolina and Florida –he’s the guy who has been landing the most blows on Obama, not other Republicans.

There is a great issue at hand tonight –the Keystone XL pipeline
. Rick Santorum should be finding every chance to blast the president’s dithering on this jobs machine which the environmental fringe has stalled in the State Department. If he combines an attack on the delay of the pipeline with many reminders of the president’s long war on the Charleston Boeing plant, he will be showing voters in the Palmetto State and across the country that he could carry the fight not just to Romney but to Barack Obama as well.

Mitt Romney, of course, would be well served by continuing to do what he has done to date, which is train most of his rhetorical fire at the president, continuing to repeat again and again the litany of job killing examples from the president’s record, from Boeing to Gibson Guitars, Solyndra to the Keystone XL pipeline. The debates between now and the end of the month might be the last true “tune-ups” for the show-downs with President Obama in the fall and while they have to be taken very seriously as competitions for the votes at issue this Saturday and on January 31 in Florida, they are also very much the opening engagements in the general campaign as well.

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