Back in October, a group of Republican voters in Arizona gathered at NPR's request to watch one of the early GOP presidential debates on TV. Wednesday night, they got together again. NPR's Ted Robbins watched with them in Saddlebrooke, a retirement community northwest of Tucson, and asked them to share their thoughts.
Four months ago, Dick and Peg Alford sent out an email inviting members of the Saddlebrooke Republican Club to their house to watch one of the early debates. Back then, eight people showed up to watch eight candidates. Wednesday night, 15 people showed up to watch the remaining four candidates square off in Mesa, Ariz.
After some food and drink, the group of retirees settled down to watch. There weren't as many laughs this time. The candidates didn't seem to score many big points with this group, either — not even when border security, a big topic in Arizona, came up.
Maybe that's because the candidates were sitting down; maybe it's because they were more practiced.
Afterward, Peg Alford said she thought this debate was more dignified, had fewer attacks and focused more on beating President Obama than earlier debates.
"They finally came to the conclusion that you have to stick together, because the one we're fighting against is the ideology of a party we don't agree with," she said.
This group also may have been a tad less interested in the debate because they have made up their minds. More than half had already cast their votes by mail for the state's GOP primary Feb. 28. Of the 15, nine support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Six want former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. None said they support former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
That's surprising because some recent Arizona polls have shown Santorum virtually tied for the lead. So much for the polls, say these folks.
Roy Christiansen had one theory: "I'm wondering if it's because he has emphasized family values, and people here are saying, hey, it's jobs, the economy, international affairs, budgets — it's that sort of thing that's really the top priority these days."
Another voter here said she thought Santorum comes across as too angry.
These Saddlebrooke residents are all retired businesspeople and their spouses. For them, the overriding question seemed to be who can beat President Obama in November.
Gingrich supporters like Nancy Macdonald said their guy is the smartest, most experienced in the field.
"He's so incredibly knowledgeable about what he's doing. He knows people all over the world. He's got so much history, and he's a historian," she said.
Romney supporters like Jack Schreiber said their guy has the necessary experience as an executive to be president.
"No. 1, he's been a governor," he said. "No. 2, he's been a businessman, and he saved the Olympics. I don't care what they say about what he did, the Olympics was failing, and they got him in there as a lifeguard, and he pulled it out of the hat, and he made $300 million. And I think he's our man."
Even the Gingrich supporters said Romney appeared more polished in Wednesday night's debate. And Bob Schwartz said only Romney can beat Obama.
"I've had a number of people in Saddlebrooke come up to me and tell me that they would vote for Romney if he was our candidate," he said, "so we've got to appeal to the center and the conservative Democrats if we're going to defeat Obama."
Everyone at this debate-watching party said they like the current Republican candidates just fine, and that they hate the president — and hate is not too strong a word for Larry Stinson.
"I'm almost 80 years old," he said, "and I tell you what, I'm totally at the point where I'd like to leave this country if the sucker gets back in. It won't happen. But honestly, I think he's destroying this country."
They all agreed that the candidate who gets the Republican nomination will get their vote, their money and their volunteer efforts in the general election.