Babeu Outing Front and Center in First of Three AZ Presidential Debates. All Eyes on Tonight's Debate As Candidates Seek Breakthrough

Presidential candidates Sarah Gonzales and Cesar Cisneros clashed womens rights.
  • Hank Stephenson
  • Presidential candidates Sarah Gonzales and Cesar Cisneros clashed over women's rights.

Revelations that Mitt Romney's Arizona committee co-chairman was involved in a clandestine gay romance threw Saturday's presidential debate into disarray, as White House hopefuls argued—in often graphic terms—the social acceptability of same-sex relationships.

The debate, which featured nine of the 23 candidates that will appear on Arizona ballots, was the first of three televised debates to take place in the Grand Canyon State prior to the Feb. 28 presidential preference election. For the first question, debate organizers raised the subject of Republican Congressional candidate and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu—a Tea Party favorite deeply involved in Romney's statewide campaign—who came out as gay during a press conference earlier in the day. Days earlier, the Phoenix New Times reported allegations that Babeu had threatened to have an ex-boyfriend deported over rumors he was spreading on the internet.

Nine of the lesser-known presidential candidates on the Arizona ballot met Saturday in the first of a series of debates in Arizona this week. The dark-horse candidates will meet again for a key debate tonight on the public-access station, while four other Republican candidates—former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul—will meet on Wednesday night in a CNN debate in Mesa.

Since the dark-horse candidates were not invited to Wednesday’s debate, tonight marks the last best chance for them to capture the attention of the state’s voters, who now appear to be focused on the major candidates in race. Two polls released last week showed that between 38 and 39 percent of GOP voters were supporting Mitt Romney, while 31 percent were supporting the surging Rick Santorum.

But a Rasmussen poll showed that 3 percent of the voter prefer another candidates and 5 percent of the voters were undecided, giving an opportunity to the dark-horse candidates to break through on Election Day.

Tonight's debate airs from 7 to 8 p.m. on Cox Cable Channel 99 and Comcast Channel 74, as well as streaming live at Access Tucson's website.

More photos from last night's debate after the jump.