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Santorum Put on Defensive Amid Attacks After Republican Debate in Arizona

Rick Santorum fought to regain momentum in the Republican presidential race today, struggling to explain why he voted for proposals in Congress that he’s since said violated his fiscal and moral principles.

In a debate in Arizona last night, Santorum described politics as a “team sport,” saying he sometimes backed legislation such as then-President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education measure to “take one for the team.”

Santorum’s explanation was potentially dangerous for a candidate casting himself as the true fiscal and social conservative in the nomination battle and promising to stand by his convictions. With primaries five days away in Arizona and Michigan, Romney and his allies seized on opportunities to undercut Santorum’s support.

Campaigning in Phoenix this morning, Romney attacked Santorum for voting for proposals he later said he opposed, including the national education law, funding for Planned Parenthood, and federal spending known as earmarks for home- state projects.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a politician explain in so many ways why it was he voted against his principles,” Romney told a building trade group. “If I’m president of the United States, I will abide by my principles and my team will be the people of the United States of America.”

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum participates in a debate sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona at the Mesa Arts Center February 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. Close

Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum participates in a debate... Read More

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Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum participates in a debate sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona at the Mesa Arts Center February 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona.

‘Inside the Beltway’

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Romney backer, derided Santorum’s debate remarks in an interview today on MSNBC.

“He’s talking about, well, ‘I’m a team player, it’s against my principles, but I voted for it,’” Christie said. “This is why you don’t want somebody who has been inside the Beltway that long, who has been a member of Congress and had no other experience in his life other than that.”

The attacks sought to capitalize on a strong performance by Romney in the 20th -- and possibly final --debate of the Republican race.

Santorum was targeted throughout the forum as he shared the stage with rivals for the first time since he unseated Romney atop national polls of Republican leaning voting. Joining Romney in the attacks on Santorum -- which included questions about the anti-abortion stances that have defined his career -- was U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

‘Fake’ Charge

Paul stood by a campaign ad calling Santorum “a fake” for claiming to be a fiscal conservative. “I find it really fascinating that, when people are running for office, they’re really fiscally conservative,” Paul said. “When they’re in office, they do something different.”

Romney hammered Santorum for voting as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania for an Alaska road project that came to symbolize the congressional earmarking process used by lawmakers to funnel tax dollars to pet programs.

Santorum responded that Romney had asked for earmarks himself as governor of Massachusetts and when he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere,” Romney shot back, referring to the Alaska project.

Super Tuesday

The candidates were vying to gain an edge before the Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan. The debate -- which included former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- also offered the last chance for direct exchanges before Super Tuesday on March 6, when 11 states hold contests that should play a major role in determining who secures the Republican nomination.

Recent statewide surveys show Romney leading in Arizona and running neck and neck with Santorum in Michigan (BEESMI), Romney’s birthplace.

Spending in Michigan on commercials by Romney’s team and a political action committee backing him has outpaced comparable expenditures on behalf of Santorum by about 3-to-2, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.

The Romney campaign and the super-PAC Restore Our Future that independently promotes his candidacy spent $1.97 million to air ads 3,718 times on Michigan broadcast television stations through yesterday, CMAG reported. Santorum and the Red White and Blue Fund, a super-PAC helping him, spent $1.25 million to air ads 3,178 times.

The two super-PACs paid for 4,077 of the 6,896 ads, or 59 percent of the total.

Romney is spending today campaigning in Arizona and Michigan, while Santorum is raising money in Texas with an appearance before the Red White and Blue Fund.

Bailout Issue

The Democrats, too, jumped into the fray this morning, with President Barack Obama’s campaign announcing it’s starting to run an ad critical of the opposition among the Republican presidential candidates to the $82 billion federal bailout of the automotive industry -- a dominant issue in Michigan.

“Don’t bet against the American auto industry,” Obama says in the ad by way of a video clip of a speech he gave in November 2010 in Kokomo, Indiana.

Santorum in the debate defended his opposition to the auto bailout by saying that, unlike Romney, he was consistent in also disagreeing with the $700 billion financial industry rescue.

“He supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street -- was all for it -- and then when it came to the auto workers and the folks in Detroit, he said no,” Santorum said. “I believe in markets, not just when they’re convenient for me.”

Romney Response

Romney dismissed the criticism -- “Nice try,” he told Santorum -- and argued he had merely opposed writing car companies a large check, rewarding labor unions that had helped weaken them without seeking needed changes to get the industry back on its feet.

Romney’s proposed alternative was a managed bankruptcy to allow the car companies to restructure. Economists, industry specialists and other politicians in both parties say the companies would have had to close without the government help because no private entity was willing to provide the funds to get them through a re-organization.

Santorum’s opposition to abortion rights came under question as Romney and Paul attacked him for helping fund Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., a group that provides abortion services, by supporting spending bills that included money for the organization.

Abstinence Issue

Santorum vowed not to sign any spending bill that appropriated money to Planned Parenthood if he became president.

At times, the attacks veered into arcane political trivia, with Romney blaming Santorum for passage of the national health care law, opposed by Republicans, because, six years earlier, he had backed his then-Senate Republican colleague, Arlen Specter, in a Pennsylvania primary fight over a more conservative rival.

“If you had said ‘no’ to Arlen Specter, we would not have had Obamacare. So don’t look at me; take a look in the mirror,” Romney said.

Santorum responded that he supported Specter in the 2004 primary because Specter promised to back Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. Specter switched parties in 2009 and provided a crucial vote for the health-care overhaul.

Santorum and Romney shouted at each other over the matter, fingers wagging, until moderator John King of CNN intervened.

Gingrich, whose debate appearances have fueled his campaign, had a relatively quiet presence on the stage, taking few shots at his rivals or King. He’s forgoing campaigning in Michigan to focus his attention on the March 6 contests. Today, he’s holding campaign rallies in Washington and Idaho.

Still, he showed no signs of unhappiness with his diminished status in the race. When asked for one word that defined him, Gingrich responded “cheerful.”

Paul picked “consistent.” Romney offered “resolute.” Santorum chose “courage.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Mesa, Arizona, at llerer@bloomberg.net; Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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