Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney battle for upper hand in Michigan primary

TROY, Mich. — Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney tried vigorously to undermine each other’s conservative bona fides Saturday in a bid to rally new supporters ahead of a crucial primary for the two leading Republican presidential candidates.

Their fortunes shifting with three days until the high-stakes Michigan primary, the candidates leveled caustic, personal attacks against each other in dueling speeches before more than 1,000 tea party activists. Santorum accused the former Massachusetts governor of being a phony conservative whose record would leave him vulnerable as the GOP standard-bearer.

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A look at how the candidates are approaching their next primary contest in Michigan.
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A look at how the candidates are approaching their next primary contest in Michigan.

“Disqualified, disqualified, disqualified,” Santorum thundered as he ticked off parts of Romney’s record, including health care, that he claimed would make it impossible for Romney to draw a clear contrast with President Obama in the general election.

“Why would we do that?” Santorum, whose lead in polls in Michigan and nationally has evaporated, asked at the Americans for Prosperity forum. “Why would we nominate someone who is uniquely unqualified to take on the big issues of the day in this election about government control of your life?”

Romney did not pull any punches when he took the same stage about an hour later. He said the former senator from Pennsylvania had been corrupted by Washington’s insider culture and rattled through a slew of instances in which Romney said his opponent had violated his own principles to “take one for the team,” repeating a phrase Santorum used to defend himself in last week’s debate.

Romney questioned Santorum’s endorsement of a fellow Pennsylvanian, Arlen Specter, over more-conservative candidates in the 1996 Republican presidential race.

“There were other conservatives running, like Bob Dole, [but] he didn’t support them,” Romney said. “He supported the pro-choice candidate, Arlen Specter. This ‘taking one for the team,’ that’s business as usual in Washington. We have to have principled, conservative leadership, and I have demonstrated that through my life.”

Santorum received a more enthusiastic response from the audience, underscoring Romney’s continued difficulty in winning over the most conservative voters. But by hammering Romney with such sharp rhetoric — on taxes, climate change, fiscal policy and health care — he seemed to convey concern about Romney’s momentum.

“I didn’t blow in the wind when things were popular with the elite,” Santorum said, “because I don’t come from the elite.”

Asked after the speech why he had been so tough on Romney, Santorum said, “Match fire with fire.”

The candidates were battling for the upper hand ahead of the Michigan primary, which could again reset the tumultuous nominating contest. For Romney, a defeat in his native state would be his most devastating setback yet, while a loss for Santorum could blunt his momentum heading into Super Tuesday on March 6, the most consequential voting day of the primary campaign so far.

Santorum was riding a wave of momentum from a trio of victories this month, but Romney — on the strength of his debate performance and a barrage of television ads that helped divert some attention from his problems to Santorum's record — has erased Santorum’s lead.

A Gallup tracking poll released Saturday showed Santorum slipping since last week into a virtual tie nationwide, with Santorum at 31 percent and Romney at 30 percent. Recent polls in Michigan show a dead heat, while Romney is leading in Arizona, which also holds its primary Tuesday.

The two candidates’ intensifying rhetoric comes as their campaign advisers were bracing for a fight that could last through the spring as each tries to accumulate enough delegates to claim the nomination. Asked whether he could sustain a loss to Romney here, Santorum said, “Yeah — the race is going to go on a long time.”

While Romney advisers are optimistic about their prospects in Tuesday’s primaries, they are pessimistic about the possibility of bringing the nomination fight to an early close. They are prepared to claw for victories in key states and to secure as many delegates as possible in other states where one of their rivals may be stronger. The likelihood of an elongated battle puts Romney, the GOP leader in fundraising, under additional pressure to bring in millions of dollars more in contributions.

Romney and Santorum are laying plans for this week’s costly sprint toward the Super Tuesday contests, when more than 400 delegates will be up for grabs. Santorum flew to Tennessee to campaign Saturday afternoon. Romney was scheduled to attend NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in Florida, which would give him visibility before a national TV audience.

Both candidates plan to return for a spirited final two campaign days in Michigan, where Romney has cast himself as the scrappy underdog; at one rally Saturday, he was introduced as “The Fighter.”

The other two GOP White House hopefuls, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), have spent far less time in Michigan and Arizona. They are focusing instead on the early March primaries and caucuses.

Romney, in three campaign stops across Michigan on Saturday, tried to undercut Santorum’s claim to be the true, principled conservative in the field by casting him as a career politician and tool of Washington.

“This is not time for the politics of the past. This is not time for lifelong pols to explain why they voted for this or that based on what they were asked to do by their fellow colleagues,” Romney told activists at a GOP breakfast in Lansing. ”This is time for us to get America on track. And whether you agree with me or disagree with me on one issue or another, we probably agree on 98 percent of the issues in front of us, and I will be a president of principle.”

Later, at the Troy forum, Romney ran through what he called an “extraordinary” list of measures Santorum said he opposed in principle yet voted to support — funding for Planned Parenthood, the No Child Left Behind education overhaul, raising the debt ceiling five times and congressional earmarks.

“We can’t do that anymore,” he said. “We can’t continue to take one for the team. My team is the people of the United States of America, and I’m going to fight for that team, not for the partisans in Washington.”

But it was Romney’s attack on Santorum for backing Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, that was the most risky. Romney may have reminded voters of his own moderate history on abortion policy; he ran for Senate in 1994 as a supporter of abortion rights but became an opponent in his term as governor.

And by the end of the day, Santorum seized on that inconsistency, telling a tea party crowd in Hixson, Tenn., that the country needs leaders who “aren’t afraid to go out and fight for life.”

“It’s easy, particularly in the Republican Party today, to say, ‘I’m pro-life,’ ” Santorum said. “Check that box, while you may have checked a lot of other boxes in the past that maybe weren’t so pro-life. It’s one thing to be pro-life. It’s another thing to go out and fight for life. I have fought for life.”

Staff writer Nia-Malika Henderson in Tennessee contributed to this report.

 
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