Elections 2012: Romney Duels With Santorun in a Combative Debate Wednesday [Video]

Mitt Romney challenged Rick Santorum’s credentials as a fiscal conservative in a fiercely combative debate on Wednesday, trying to redefine Mr. Santorum as part of the problem in Washington and regain his footing in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination.

An aggressive Romney repeatedly put Santorum on the defensive in a CNN debate on Wednesday and attacked the former U.S. senator and staunch social conservative for supporting big-spending government programs, reports Reuters.

Romney has also battled his way into a slight lead in a new poll in Michigan, which along with Arizona will hold a primary contest on February 28. Romney had trailed Santorum by as much as double digits a week ago in the Michigan race.

It was Mr. Santorum’s first time in the cross hairs as a leading candidate, an uncomfortable position that has set back other Republican challengers.

He did not recoil or wither under pressure, but he was placed on the defensive again and again, with Mr. Romney and Representative Ron Paul of Texas acting as a tag team in critiquing his record in Congress.

Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, described Mr Santorum as “a fake” for claiming to be a government-cutting conservative. He pointed out several areas where Mr Santorum’s stances clashed with his voting record. “I’m real,” an exasperated Mr Santorum said.

Romney, his candidacy potentially at stake, went after his chief rival repeatedly. According to International Business Times, he said Santorum voted to raise the debt ceiling and supported “earmarks,” the much-ridiculed pet spending projects that members of Congress often slip into appropriations legislation.

Mr. Santorum was taunted with boos when he said he had voted for the education program even though “it was against the principles I believed in.”

He explained that he had done so because of its importance to Mr. Bush, saying: “Sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader.” That line provided an opening for Mr. Paul, who declared: “He calls this a team sport. He has to go along to get along, and that’s the way the team plays, but that’s what the problem is with Washington.”

Romney pointed out Santorum had supported a much-derided $400 million “bridge to nowhere” project in Alaska that was eventually abandoned. Santorum shot back that Romney had sought earmarks to pay for security at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Romney said to Santorum: “When I was fighting for the Olympics, you were fighting for the ‘bridge to nowhere.'” Santorum insisted earmarks have their place. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped back at Romney.

Mr. Romney used it as an opportunity to attack one of Mr. Santorum’s greatest perceived strengths among conservatives — his opposition to abortion  — by noting that Mr. Specter supports abortion rights.

Mr. Romney also noted that Mr. Santorum had supported a provision that provided financing to Planned Parenthood, says The New York Times.

Mr. Santorum acknowledged he had voted for the financing provision, but as part of “a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things.” He added that he had “a personal moral objection to it,” even though “I voted for bills that included it.”

And when Mr. Santorum sought to turn the discussion back to Mr. Romney’s health care overhaul in Massachusetts, saying it was the precursor to “Obamacare,” Mr. Romney said Mr. Santorum’s support of Mr. Specter had helped make the health care plan law. (Mr. Specter, who switched parties to become a Democrat before the 2010 election, had voted for the national health care plan.)

Mr Santorum enjoyed some success in accusing Mr Romney of co-opting the slogan of the Occupy movement while unveiling his plan to reform the US tax system earlier in the day.

According to The Telegraph, accusing Mr Romney of “adopting the Occupy Wall Street rhetoric”, Mr Santorum accused him of raising taxes and fees in Massachusetts by $700 million.

“I’m not going to adopt that rhetoric,” he said. “I’m going to represent 100 per cent of Americans – we’re not raising taxes on anybody,” he said.

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once a front-runner and now struggling for a breakthrough on Super Tuesday, got strong reviews for his debate performance while letting his rivals slug it out.

“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. OK? So let’s be clear here,” Gingrich said.

He was referring to a vote by Obama while he was an Illinois state senator on legislation about the status of fetuses that survive abortion.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, is the latest candidate to seriously contest the party’s nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama in a November 6 general election.

New polls in Michigan and Arizona on Wednesday showed Romney gaining ground on Santorum. He held a slight 2-point edge on Santorum in an NBC/Marist poll in Michigan, and a 16-point edge in an NBC/Marist poll in Arizona, where a CNN/Time poll earlier in the week gave him just a 4-point edge, reports Reuters.

A victory in Michigan is critical for Romney as he needs to prove he can win in the state where he was born.

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