Front-runner Envy? Mitt Romney Claws at Rick Santorum in Arizona Debate

AFP/Getty Images(MESA, Ariz.) -- The first words out of Mitt Romney's mouth at Wednesday night's Republican debate were a planned attack on Rick Santorum.

Time and time again on stage, Romney turned to his right to label Santorum a spender of government money who favored earmarks, not the conservative he has proclaimed himself to be throughout his campaign.

Romney's premeditated talking-point barrage reflected the stakes of the GOP primary. Once considered the inevitable nominee, Romney is facing the prospect of a troubled campaign should he lose a primary Tuesday in either Michigan or Arizona.

At one point during the debate that aired on CNN, Romney sought to use one of his biggest albatrosses with conservatives, his record on health care, against Santorum by accusing the resurgent candidate of being responsible for "ObamaCare" by endorsing a candidate who became a Democrat, Arlen Specter.

"So don't look at me," said Romney, whose health record in Massachusetts has been called a model for the federal program signed by President Obama. "Take a look in the mirror."

Santorum's defense was that he backed Specter because the Republican-turned-Democrat vowed to support President Bush's judicial nominees.

Romney and Santorum also volleyed insults during a tense exchange over earmarks.

It began as Santorum argued that while he was a senator he supported "good earmarks," such as essential military weapons, but that not all spending projects are appropriate.

However, he said, "as president, I would oppose earmarks."

"I didn't follow all of that," Romney countered.

Romney then defended his role as the head of the Olympics, in which he asked the federal government for money to cover transportation and security costs.

Romney conceded that he agreed with Santorum over giving the president line-item veto powers, but he insisted that they differed on their approaches to government spending.

"While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere," Romney jabbed, referring to the infamous earmark that came to symbolize wasteful spending.

Ticking off some highlights from Santorum's record as a senator, Romney told the crowd in Arizona that the Pennsylvanian raised the debt ceiling "five different times" without insisting on cuts in spending to balance it, funded Planned Parenthood and voted to expand the Education Department.

"Senator, during your term in Congress, the years you've been there, government has doubled in size," Romney said. "In my view, we should not raise the debt ceiling again until we get compensating cuts in spending."

Santorum, sitting in the spotlight on the stage as the nominal front-runner, fought back by accusing Romney of saying he would also vote to raise the debt ceiling.

However, Santorum added, he regretted some of his own votes, including one in favor of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind education bill. He also accused Romney of wanting to raise taxes -- at least on the top one percent of Americans.

"I'm not going to adopt that rhetoric," Santorum said. "I'm going to represent 100 percent of Americans. We're not raising taxes on anybody."

Later, as he elaborated on his vote to approve of No Child Left Behind, some in attendance booed Santorum as he said his vote was "against the principles I believed," but that "when you're part of a team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader, and I made a mistake."

"You know, politics is a team sport, folks," Santorum said, as if addressing his dissenters in the audience, risking that he might be perceived as a Washington insider. "I admit the mistake, and I will not make that mistake again."

Ron Paul jumped at the chance to deem Santorum a creature of Washington.

"He has to go along to get along, and that's the way the team plays," Paul said. "I don't accept that form of government....I think the obligation of all of us should be the oath of office....It shouldn't be the oath to the party."

Though the debate also featured a handful of questions about social issues, the candidates were more in agreement as they derided the Obama administration for what they said were attacks on religion, and they called for cultural matters to be addressed.

Santorum, who has drawn scrutiny for some of his comments about religion, birth control and women serving in the military, rose to a crescendo as he said that, as president, he would bring attention to the growing number of babies being born out of wedlock.

He suggested that issue is "bigger" than fixing the economy.

"We can't have limited government, lower taxes...cut spending," Santorum said. "No, everything's not going to be fine. There are bigger problems at stake in America. And someone's got to go out there. I will."

Romney, who said he agreed with Santorum over the need to address children born to unmarried parents, denied accusations that he forced Catholic hospitals to give morning-after pills to rape victims. He said as governor of Massachusetts, he made sure that the state's health care law included "provisions that make sure that something of that nature does not occur."

Along with each of the other candidates, Santorum was asked to again address the Pentagon's initiative to give women bigger roles in combat. Santorum, who drew criticism from liberals after saying that women fighting alongside men would raise "emotions," said that he still has "those concerns."

Romney, meanwhile, said that "women have the capacity to serve in our military" in most positions.

Romney did challenge Santorum on contraception, turning to the ex-senator as he recalled that he "saw a YouTube clip" of Santorum explaining why he voted for the Title X "family planning" program.

"You said this in a positive light," Romney charged.

Santorum was booed as he conceded that he did vote for bills including that provision, but he said he didn't support it.

"I've never supported it and, on an individual basis, voted against it," Santorum said.

But in 2006, Santorum said, he supported birth control because "it is not the taking of human life," and people should have the choice to "do whatever you want to do."

Ron Paul, who has made moves that helped Romney in recent days, joined the fight against Santorum, calling him a "fake" in the spirit of the Texas congressman's latest campaign ad portraying Santorum negatively.

"The record is so bad," Paul said.

Santorum rebutted Paul's criticism by citing a measure by The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, that said he was the most fiscally conservative senator during the 12 years that he served.

Romney also faced a question about his conservative bona fides, an issue that he has confronted repeatedly during the campaign. As he addressed a gathering of conservative activists in Washington this month, Romney claimed he was "severely conservative," a label that some have questioned -- including Wednesday night's moderator, CNN's John King.

"Severe, strict," Romney said. "I was, without question, a conservative governor of my state."

Newt Gingrich, who got fewer questions than at previous debates, was an ally of Santorum's only rarely. As the two lead candidates debated earmarks, the former House speaker said that Romney was correct to ask the government for money to support the Olympics -- but that he was wrong to then criticize Santorum for being involved in the earmark process.

Romney, Gingrich said, shouldn't "claim that what you got wasn't what they got because what you got was right and what they got was wrong."

The debate was mostly serious, characterized by Romney and Santorum bickering in center stage over their conservative credentials. But in a rare moment of light questioning, the candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word.

Said a stone-faced Gingrich: "Cheerful."

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