Santorum on the defensive in GOP debate

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was thrown on the defensive here Wednesday night as rival Mitt Romney attacked the former senator over spending and earmarks and accused him of compiling an inconsistent and contradictory record.

In the first GOP debate since he won a trio of states two weeks ago, Santorum fired back, accusing Romney of his own inconsistencies, but he struggled under repeated criticism to explain his record. The squabbling became so intense at times that the two talked past each other, with voices raised, each trying to gain the upper hand.

When Santorum came under fire for supporting earmarks as a senator from Pennsylvania, he countered by noting that Romney had sought federal money when he was governor of Massachusetts and when he was in charge of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Romney didn’t apologize for the money he received from Washington for the latter, telling his rival, “Our Games were successful. But while I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ ”

Santorum began to respond, only to be interrupted by Romney, which brought a sharp response from the former senator. “You’re misrepresenting the facts,” Santorum said. “You don’t know what you’re taking about.”

The high-stakes debate came six days before crucial primaries in Arizona and Michigan and less than two weeks before Super Tuesday, the biggest round of contests this year. Santorum’s surge, the latest twist in what has been an unpredictable nomination contest, has put Romney in jeopardy of losing in Michigan, where he was born and raised.

Romney is favored to win here in Arizona next week, but a loss in Michigan would represent a major setback for his candidacy and could redraw the shape of the race as no other event has done.

The two other remaining candidates, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), leapt into the conversation throughout the nearly two-hour debate. Gingrich performed well overall and Paul was alternately funny and biting.

But the focus of the evening was on the competition between the two front-runners. This was Santorum’s first time in the spotlight, and he felt more heat than he has in any of the previous 19 Republican debates.

He and Romney fought over bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry, over debt and deficits, over comments Santorum has made about contraception, and over the health-care plan Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts. Santorum said Romney would cede that issue in a fall campaign against President Obama.

When Romney noted that he had balanced the Massachusetts budget for four straight years, Santorum scoffed, saying that was required by the state’s constitution. “Don’t go around bragging about something you have to do,” he said. “Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don’t think so,” he added, referring to another former Massachusetts governor.

Although Santorum had good moments, it was Romney who emerged stronger from the encounter. He arrived well prepared with an intimate knowledge of Santorum’s record, which he offered up at pivotal moments to try to throw his opponent off stride.

He reminded Santorum that in 2008, long after the Massachusetts health-care plan became law, the former senator endorsed him for president. And he forced Santorum to defend supporting Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania’s other senator at the time, a liberal Republican who later became a Democrat, against a more conservative rival in a GOP primary campaign.

Santorum tried to explain that he had done so because Specter was to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee and that he had received assurances that his colleague would support President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees.

In the opening phase of the debate, Romney reprised an attack he has sharpened on the campaign trail, blasting Santorum for his fiscal record in the Senate. Santorum, he said, voted five times to raise the debt ceiling without demanding comparable spending cuts. And he aggressively criticized Santorum for his use of earmarks.

Santorum, who has sought to portray himself as a rebel willing to take on his own party, was at times contrite for his past votes, saying he was wrong to have supported Bush’s No Child Left Behind education legislation.

“I have to admit, I voted for that,” he said of the measure. “It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake.”

He said he stopped supporting earmarks once it became clear that they were being abused and called for reforms.

The backtracking earned him a rebuke from Paul. CNN’s John King, the moderator, asked the congressman why he was running a television ad calling Santorum a fake fiscal conservative.

“Because he is a fake,” Paul responded. “This idea of being fiscally conservative now that we’re running for office, and we’re going to repeal something that we did before, I mean, this — it loses credibility.”

When the issue of contraception, which has been a topic of national discussion over the past few weeks, arose, the audience groaned and booed. Santorum was asked why he has said that as president he would talk about the dangers of contraception.

He pointed to the number of out-of-wedlock births in the United States and said he thinks it is an important cultural issue that needs national focus. He said his liberal critics have condemned him for doing so but added, “You know, here’s the difference between me and the left, and they don’t get this. Just because I’m talking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.”

From there, Santorum ran into trouble as he went into a long discussion of federal legislation he supported reluctantly and the effort he made to ensure that abstinence would be taught in schools. Romney jumped in, noting that in earlier public statements he had never suggested that he actually opposed the legislation he had supported.

On another economic issue, Santorum accused Romney of being inconsistent on the issue of federal bailouts, saying he was in favor of government intervention on behalf of banks but against it with regard to the auto industry.

Romney countered that the bank bailouts were necessary to prevent the collapse of not just Wall Street financial institutions but the entire banking system. He noted that Santorum, while in Congress, voted for similar efforts to prop up private industries.

He explained that he was not in favor of a payout to the auto industry but supported a managed bankruptcy. Obama, Romney said, eventually followed the course of action he recommended on that front, but not before conceding to the United Auto Workers.

Gingrich, who has been out of the spotlight recently, said Romney had been right about the auto industry. “I think that they would have been much better off to have gone through a managed bankruptcy, I agree with Governor Romney,” he said. “I think what would have happened is the UAW would have lost all of their advantages.”

Toward the end of the debate, Romney and Santorum reined in their criticism of each other and turned their attacks on Obama. They were equally disparaging of the president’s foreign policy, particularly toward Iran, and Santorum at one point praised Romney as “well spoken” on the issue.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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