DETROIT - Barbara VanSyckel is the chairwoman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Mich., a key county in a key state with a crucial GOP primary coming next Tuesday. She was looking forward to the Republican debate from Arizona this week, eager to see the candidates outline their positions before heading to Michigan. But after watching for a while, VanSyckel actually turned the debate off, disgusted by the negativity and bad-mouthing between the candidates.
"I just got really tired," she says. "Didn't Ron Paul call Rick Santorum a fake? Are you kidding me? And what bothered me was when Romney went after Santorum about the Arlen Specter thing. ... It was at that moment that I said, you know what? I really don't want to listen anymore."
If you're a party trying to build enough enthusiasm to take back the White House, it's never a good idea to alienate your own county chairmen so much that they won't even watch your debates. But that is the situation as the increasingly sour Republican race moves to Michigan.
It's not a surprise. The days leading up to Wednesday night's debate were filled with bad feelings, and the debate itself was filled with bad feelings. Santorum found himself the target of a media pile-on after reports of old statements about -- astonishingly enough -- contraception and Satan. Santorum's advisers grew angry and frustrated, feeling he was being singled out for questions about religious views that were not also directed at Romney, Paul, and Newt Gingrich. Santorum lost precious campaign time explaining himself.
The question was whether many voters actually cared. The day of the debate, Santorum traveled two hours south of Phoenix to address the Tucson Tea Party. If you did not know about the media firestorm, you never would have gotten the impression that anything was amiss from listening to Santorum's speech.
Santorum spoke at length about the Obama administration's policies on Iran, Syria and Israel. He discussed his proposal to cut taxes for manufacturers and the more general issue of jobs. He talked a lot about immigration, both illegal and legal. He went into quite a bit of detail about energy -- shale oil, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, oil sands, the Keystone pipeline, fracking, and more. He talked about values and families -- "This is what I know gets everybody on the secular left bonkers about my campaign: I say America is at heart a moral enterprise" -- but he did not revisit the battles of the previous 48 hours.
It was, in other words, an entirely normal and wide-ranging campaign speech, full of substance. When it was over, Santorum took two questions. The first was about the health of his daughter Isabella. The second was about Social Security. No contraception, no Satan.
Talking to Tea Party voters afterward, it was clear that most didn't think the flare-up of culture war was a big deal. "I tune it all out," said Marti Slowik, of Tucson, "because I think it doesn't have anything to do with what is important to our country."
It's not clear how many voters, particularly in Michigan, share her view. A few hours later, the race fell back into negative mode as the candidates took the stage for a debate full of bickering and finger-pointing. Afterward, Santorum suggested Romney and Ron Paul have some sort of agreement in which they both attack Santorum but lay off each other. "Clearly there is a tag-team strategy between Ron Paul and Mitt Romney," said top Santorum strategist John Brabender.
"Mitt Romney is trained as an attack dog," Brabender added. "It's Pavlovian."
In response, Romney strategist Stuart Stevens called all the talk "whiny silliness."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Newt Gingrich said the former speaker would make no effort in Michigan, in the hope that a Santorum win there would weaken Romney. "Whatever means we can use that are to our advantage to get rid of Mitt Romney ... we're happy to have that happen," spokesman R.C. Hammond said.
So with the Arizona debate over, the increasingly contentious campaign moves to Michigan, where Romney has been running ads attacking Santorum, and on Thursday Santorum introduced two new ads attacking Romney. The first hit Romney for supporting Wall Street bailouts and "turning his back on Michigan workers." The second simply featured Romney statements from the past like, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose" and "I'd have been embarrassed if I didn't ask for federal dollars every chance I had."
All in all, it's been enough to make even a party chairwoman turn off the TV. What will it do for GOP voters?
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.