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Arizona issues will be addressed in CNN Presidential debate

What could be the most important debate among Republican Presidential candidates takes place tonight in Mesa. It’s the last debate before Super Tuesday when ten states hold primary elections. And as Paul Atkinson reports from Phoenix, issues important to Arizona will play a role in the debate.

Terry Ray is enjoying breakfast with his daughter and granddaughter at Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert--about five miles from where the Republican Presidential Debate will take place. The retired probation officer would like to see candidates address what he considers the most pressing issue in Arizona and the nation.

The CNN Election Express bus is parked outside the Mesa Arts Center, site of the GOP Presidential debate. (Photo by Paul Atkinson - KJZZ)

“My biggest concern -- like most other people -- is the economy,” says Ray. “What are we really doing to fix the problem?”

Others at Liberty Market want to know what the candidates will do about the lingering effects of the housing crisis and rising costs of goods including gasoline. Sarah Holly is a small business owner.

“I’m a parent,” says Holly, “so making certain that things are stabilized in our economy so that my kids are able to grow up in an environment where they can start their own businesses or work for whomever they want to.”

The federal government’s deficit and growing debt is something Mike Reynolds wants the presidential candidates to address. He thinks government should be much smaller.

“You need to chop off the head of the beast and stop funding it so much," says Reynolds. “Across the board, 10-20-percent,” says Reynolds.

An issue that put Arizona in the spotlight the last two years—illegal immigration-- is something Aaron LeBlanc would like to see the candidates discuss.

“One thing I really believe they should be talking about is the immigration in America,” says LeBlanc. “The constant overflow of illegal immigrants into the United States.”

Dealing will illegal immigration is something candidates will be asked about. Sam Feist is CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief and executive producer of the CNN Arizona Republican Party Debate.

“I think Arizona matters to this debate,” says Feist. “Because we are here in Arizona, but Arizona is at the center of a number of quite a number of political issues, whether it’s the border wars or the war on immigration.”

Feist says the presidential candidates will be asked about important national and international issues in the news since the last debate three weeks ago. But the economy, especially that of the host state, will be discussed.

“Arizona has been hit—probably is the third hardest hit state in the country by the economic downturn,” notes Feist. “At the same time, the Arizona economy is starting to turn around and those issues trigger a whole assortment of questions about jobs and the economy, so I think Arizona will be relevant.”

The debate could play a significant role in primary elections in Arizona, Michigan and ten other states over the next two weeks. Feist points to the impact the Republican Presidential debates have had so far.

“We’ve had six, seven, eight different front runners already in this election,” says Feist. “I think the debates have had quite a bit to do with who is the front runner at any given time.”

The latest polls show Mitt Romney leading in Arizona, with Rick Santorum a few points behind and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul further back. The CNN Arizona Republican Party Debate airs live from the Mesa Arts Center at 6 o'clock this evening.

Updated: Wednesday, February 22, 2011, 11:36 am