Sheryl Jarosch of Sheboygan, Wis., a supporter of Republican presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum holds a sign on Main Street outside the Republican debate site Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz.\r\n
TEMPE, Ariz. — Like an orphan in the desert, Arizona feels lonely and abandoned this election day, as Republican presidential hopefuls scurry across snow-swept Michigan ahead of a pair of crucial primaries 2,000 miles apart.
It has been nearly a week since any of the contestants set foot in Arizona, departing almost as soon as they finished debating last Wednesday night in Mesa.
Worse, from a local perspective, the candidates have spent virtually no time discussing the state's high foreclosure rate — the third worst in the country — or other Arizona issues, such as water and land use. Immigration, one of the state's perennial concerns, came up in the debate just briefly, more than an hour into the discussion.
The reason the state has been largely snubbed is simple: Romney, locked in a fierce battle in Michigan, is the prohibitive favorite in Arizona. A loss in either of Tuesday's primaries could set his campaign reeling. But a defeat in Michigan — where Romney was born and raised and his father served three terms as governor — would be devastating.
Whether by squeaker or blowout, the top voter-getter in Arizona will claim all 29 of the state's delegates. Michigan allocates its 30 delegates proportionally, so a close second could mean a considerable share.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney's main challenger, has centered his campaign in Michigan partly for that reason. The other candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, have generally campaigned with their eyes cast on the 10 states voting March 6.
Here in Arizona, as elsewhere, Romney benefits from having run once before. He finished a respectable second behind home-state Sen. John McCain in the 2008 primary and even beat him in a Phoenix-area congressional district and one rural county, both with large Mormon populations. Romney has scarcely stopped running since.
He boasts a strong fundraising and organizational base, built out from his support among fellow Mormons, who can make up 10 percent or more of the GOP electorate depending on turnout. Romney also enjoys support from the state Republican Party establishment, including McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer.
Santorum seemed to have a brief opening in Arizona, soaring in polls after a string of victories earlier this month in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri invigorated his campaign and renewed doubts about Romney, long shaky on his front-runner's perch.
But many observers say Santorum squandered his last, best chance to pull an Arizona upset with his middling performance at last week's debate.