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2012: The 20th (and final?) GOP debate

In what will be the 20th debate this cycle, “Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum will take the stage Wednesday night for their first meeting since Santorum upended the GOP race two weeks ago with a spate of victories over the Republican front-runner,” The Hill writes. “The hugely anticipated presidential debate offers the GOP hopefuls their last, best chance to reclaim control of a chaotic race before a tidal wave of make-or-break contests on Super Tuesday, March 6. For Santorum, the Arizona and Michigan primaries seven days hence offer a chance to shatter Romney. … Romney’s task is to stop Santorum’s recent surge and reassert himself as the inevitable nominee-in-waiting who can best lead the general-election fight to unseat President Obama.”

Taegan Goddard notes of the new AP-GFK poll: “Just 40% of Republicans say they have a great deal of interest in following the contest, compared with 48% in December. Key findings: Only 23% are strongly satisfied with the field and 40% said they are dissatisfied with the candidates running.”

GINGRICH: “GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim during a Monday campaign rally in Georgia, while mocking President Obama's plan to provide subsidies for plug-in electric cars,” The Hill writes. Gingrich told supporters, "Here's my point to folks. You can't put a gun rack in a Volt." Well, actually… “[O]ne Chevy Volt driver took up the former House Speaker's statement as a challenge, posting a YouTube video of his black Volt equipped with a homemade gun rack in the trunk.”

Politico’s Morning Score reports: “Newt 2012 will announce plans today to purchase 30-minute blocks of airtime in key cities between now and Super Tuesday to air a video address by Newt Gingrich on lowering gasoline prices and achieving energy independence. For the full half-hour, Gingrich looks directly into the camera and speaks without a teleprompter or text. ‘The answer to Governor Romney's 30-second attack ads filled with garbage is a 30-minute address filled with substance,’ Gingrich Communications Director Joe DeSantis says in a forthcoming release. The campaign says it will announce air times and locations of the speech in the coming days, but DeSantis declines to say how much money will actually be put behind the video.” Here’s the video.

First Read can report that the Gingrich campaign has already purchased 30 minutes in Spokane, WA, according to GOP ad tracker Smart Media Delta. Washington state holds its nominating contest March 3rd.

PAUL: The Columbus Dispatch takes a look at Ron Paul's unique volunteer network in Ohio.

ROMNEY: The Detroit Free Press finds an example of the kind of blue-collar voter who's a problem for Romney. "Wayne Robertson, 77, of Warren said he is leaning toward voting for Rick Santorum in next Tuesday's Republican primary because, as a union man, he doesn't like Romney's support for right-to-work laws."That could be a real problem on the plant floor," he said."

The Detroit News endorsed Romney, citing electability and private sector know-how. On the auto bailout: "We disagree with Romney on a point vital to Michigan — his opposition to the bailout of the domestic automobile industry. Romney advocated for a more traditional bankruptcy process, while we believe the bridge loans provided by the federal government in the fall of 2008 were absolutely essential to the survival of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. The issue isn't a differentiator in the GOP primary, since the entire field opposed the rescue effort." And on Santorum, it notes: "Nothing in his background suggests he has the skills to unify Americans behind his banner and become the leader of the free world. In addition, his fealty to the religious right will make him unappealing to the critical independent voters who will decide the election."

SANTORUM: Santorum’s up 35%-26% in a national Quinnipiac poll. He narrowly edges Romney, 33%-32%, in a new AP-GFK poll; Gingrich and Paul get 15%.

Santorum leads by 16 points in Wisconsin, 34%-18% over Romney in a Marquette Law School Poll. Paul gets 17%, Gingrich 12%. Wisconsin holds its primary April 3rd.

“It’s Rick Santorum’s moment — and he needs to be careful,” the New York Daily News writes. “Santorum will take the stage at Wednesday’s night’s crucial Republican debate knowing that a commanding performance could propel him into the driver’s seat in the topsy-turvy race. But the former Pennsylvania senator will be in the debate spotlight for the first time this primary season — and the unblinking glare could cast an unflattering shadow on Santorum’s extreme right-wing social positions.”

“Rick Santorum’s language on religion and values is coming under deeper scrutiny and raising questions about whether he should be the GOP standard-bearer in the fall,” The Hill writes.

The Huffington Post throws cold water on Santorum’s staunch anti-abortion rights stance: “Prior to entering public office, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was a self-admitted pro-choice Republican unwilling to dabble in the cultural conservative politics that now defines his presidential campaign, a review of old campaign documents and interviews shows,” it writes, adding, “In a December 1995 Philadelphia Magazine article -- which the Huffington Post pulled from Temple University archives -- Santorum conceded that he ‘was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress... But it had never been something I thought about.’ Asked why he changed his mind, he said that he ‘sat down and read the literature. Scientific literature,’ only to correct himself and note that religion was a part of it too.”

Newly minted Obama re-election co-chair Ted Strickland says that Santorum may prove a formidable general election candidate. From the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "'All along I have felt that Mitt Romney would probably be the strongest general election challenger to the president,' Strickland said of the former Massachusetts governor and one-time GOP front-runner who has been eclipsed in recent polls by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. 'I'm not sure that's true any longer. I think Rick Santorum may emerge as the stronger general election candidate.'"

Roll Call looks at the scrutiny pro-Santorum Super PAC Red, White, and Blue Fund is receiving.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer writes that Washington state Democrats are cheering publicity for Rick Santorum, saying it will help mobilize their base in downballot races.