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Romney, Santorum rip into one another at last GOP debate before Michigan vote

MESA, Ariz. — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ripped into one another at Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate in their last joint appearance before a chain of make-or-break contests.

Romney was helped out in his attacks by his GOP rivals, which left Santorum, who has surged in the polls recently, playing defense most of the night.

The cozy seating around a communal table did nothing to stop the bickering that dominated the two-hour debate.

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Ron Paul called the former Pennsylvania senator a “fake,” while Santorum and Romney went head to head on who can genuinely call himself a fiscal conservative. Newt Gingrich largely tried to stay above the fray and train his attacks on President Obama, but ended up falling off the radar for much of the debate.

From the start, all eyes were on Romney and Santorum, who are battling it out ahead of Tuesday primaries in Michigan and Arizona that could decide whether Romney remains the presumed front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination.

And the two didn’t disappoint. Both went after each other relentlessly — on earmarks, healthcare, federal spending and government bailouts — interrupting each other as they worked to shoot down each other’s argument.

Romney held his ground, but failed to generate the bold, stand-out moments his supporters hoped he could resurrect after strong debate performances helped him flip the tables on Gingrich in Florida.

And Santorum found himself on the defensive, appearing uneasy at times as he fended off attacks from the three other candidates on his record in Congress.

Asked why he was running an ad of his calling Santorum a "fake,” Paul didn't miss a beat.

"Because he's a fake," Paul said to laughs.

Santorum, sitting next to him, gave a tight smile and jokingly patted his arms. "I'm real, Ron," he replied.

"Congratulations," Paul said with a smirk, before attacking Santorum's record.

"I find it really fascinating that when people are running for office they're really fiscally conservative," he said. "When they're in office they do something different.”




Romney also trotted out Santorum’s comments from a YouTube clip where he said Santorum had stated his opposition to birth control, but acknowledged voting for a public health act that included funding for family planning.

“I voted for bills that included it and I made it very clear in subsequent interviews that I don’t support that,” Santorum said, adding that the bill had included numerous other provisions he didn’t want to vote against. “I’ve never supported it and on an individual basis have voted against it.”

The audience greeted his response with suspicion, with some booing him as he explained why he voted for something that contained elements he opposed.

But Santorum regained his footing at other moments, turning a question about his personal views on contraception into a denouncement of the GOP hopefuls’ common enemy: Democrats.

“Here’s the difference between me and the left,” Santorum said in one of his strongest moments of the night. “Just because I’m taking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it. That’s what they do.”

A discussion on contraception became one of the most notable moments of the night. The crowd booed when moderator John King asked the candidates about the recent controversy over the issue.

And the candidates, after saying they didn't want to talk about it, went on at length attacking Obama on the issue.

Gingrich was particularly harsh, blasting the media for their coverage of the issue then accusing Obama of supporting "infanticide."

"There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes, that's legitimate," he said. "But I just want to point out: You did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. Let's be clear here: If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues it is President Obama who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion."

All of the candidates appeared befuddled during at least one moment in the debate, which broke down at points into a tedious examination of government tactics and strayed from the issues central to the campaign and to voters’ decisions. They spent minutes debating the minutiae of the earmarking process, and later spoke in great detail about Title X funding, while much of the audience sat scratching their heads.

Santorum also attempted to tie Romney to Occupy Wall Street, a movement that has protested Romney and disrupted his campaign events on countless occasions. But in unveiling his tax plan Wednesday, Romney said his proposal wouldn’t be a boon for “the top 1 percent,” a phrase made famous by the Occupy movement.

“I’m not going to adopt that rhetoric,” Santorum said.

He also charged Romney with hypocrisy, pointing out that Romney had supported raising the debt ceiling when Congress voted on it last summer.

Romney said that was different, because he had argued for a “cut, cap and balance” plan that would have completely offset the cost of the debt ceiling increase. The former Massachusetts governor left no stone unturned as he worked to create the perception that it was Santorum — not himself — who had supported needless government spending.

“While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere,” Romney quipped.

But on another issue that has consumed much of the political bandwidth in recent days — bailouts for Michigan’s auto industry — it was Romney who was on the defensive.

Romney penned a now-famous editorial in 2008 where he said the government should let the auto industry go through bankruptcy to return itself to solvency, but has had a difficult time defending after an Obama-backed bailout helped the industry return to profitability.

“I, in principle, oppose government coming in and bailing out a sector of the economy or an industry,” Santorum said, noting that Romney had supported the bailout for Wall Street. “When it came to the auto workers and the folks in Detroit, he said no. That, to me, is not a principled position.”

Romney quickly returned fire, justifying his support for the Wall Street bailout by saying that he wanted to make sure the economy did not completely collapse. But Romney pointed out that Santorum had not opposed all bailouts, having voted to aid the airline industry following the September 11 attacks.

"You voted for the airline bailout after 9/11, I think that was the right thing to do," Romney said.

Santorum quickly denounced the comparison as "not apples to apples," arguing the government had forced a shutdown of the airline industry in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Gingrich, meanwhile, called the auto bailout a "violation of 200 years of bankruptcy law" and said the Big Three automakers had adopted "a management system that had become incapable of tough decisions."

Nor did the bailout find any love from Paul as he dismissed words from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who has said the bailout was a good thing for Michigan.

"That’s sort of like a criminal who goes out and robs a bank and is successful, so you endorse it," Paul said.

Questions about healthcare also pitted Romney and Santorum directly against each other and resulted in one of the most contentious moments in the debate.

Santorum accused Romney of creating the model in Massachusetts for an overreaching government healthcare program that Obama later enacted nationwide.  But Romney pointed out that Santorum had supported former Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), a Republican-turned-Democrat who was one of the key votes Obama needed to pass healthcare reform.

“If you had not supported him, if you had not supported Arlen Specter, we would not have Obamacare, so take a look in the mirror," Romney said.

The back-and-forth between the two grew so heated they often talked over one another, jabbing their hands in the air to make their point.

All the candidates were in agreement on one thing: Obama’s approach to Iran and Israel has failed to be effective and to bolster the nation’s security.

But it was Romney who went the farthest, suggesting that a second Obama term necessarily means Iran will use nuclear weapons.

"If I'm president that will not happen,” Romney said. “If we reelect Barack Obama it will happen."

Romney will wrap up his Arizona swing with one last event on Thursday before heading back to Michigan, where the stakes are even higher for him next week. A loss to Santorum in the state his father governed would seriously set back his efforts to lock up the nomination.

Unable to seriously compete in Michigan, Gingrich is turning his attention to the states that will vote on Super Tuesday, one week after the Michigan and Arizona contests. The former House Speaker will campaign in Washington and Idaho on Thursday before heading east to focus on southern states such as Tennessee and his home state of Georgia.

- Cameron Joseph and Justin Sink contributed.

- This story was originally posted at 8:27 p.m. and updated.