PHOENIX, Ariz. – Rick Santorum appears to be gearing up for a showdown.

In remarks to about 250 supporters in the auditorium of a Masonic lodge, the surging Republican presidential hopeful and former Pennsylvania senator didn’t directly refer to any of his recent campaign-trail statements that have drawn controversy.

Those remarks include his statement on President Obama’s “theology,” his apparent comparison of Obama to Hitler and a recently-resurfaced transcript of a 2008 speech in which he repeatedly mentioned Satan.

But Santorum on Tuesday night alluded to some of those eyebrow-raising statements and then issued a strident defense of them, seizing the moment to slam the media and contrast himself with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).

Coming on the eve of the last GOP presidential debate before Arizona’s Feb. 28 primary, the move by Santorum – who polls show nearly pulling even with Romney in the Grand Canyon State – could be a preview of things to come Wednesday night.

“I can tell you, the reason I think we’re doing well in this campaign is because we’re being available to the American public,” Santorum told a mostly subdued crowd that filled only the front portion of the sprawling auditorium.

“No teleprompters; no written speeches; the opportunity to see what’s in here, and what’s up here, and what’s burning down here,” he said, pointing to his head and heart.

The crowd responded with loud applause.

“That’s what Americans are looking for -- they’re looking for someone who they can trust; who’s authentic, who isn’t reading them words off a teleprompter that somebody else wrote for them,” he said. “And you know what? Sometimes I’ve been told that when you don’t read off the teleprompter, and you do, oh, 800 town hall meetings and hundreds and hundreds of hours of speeches, in all of those recorded things, they may find a thing or two and then say, ‘Oh look, he said this, and it might mean this.’”

“We love you for it!” yelled a man in the front of the crowd.

“And he loves me for it,” Santorum said, pointing to the man.

The audience applauded, as did the man, who earlier in the speech was holding up a sign that read, “Drudge wants Mitt. AZ picks Rick.”

The sign appeared to be a reference to the Drudge Report web site, which earlier Tuesday posted a partial transcript of a 2008 speech that has found new life on the Internet in recent days; in the speech, Santorum had warned of a “spiritual war” and said that Satan had set his sights on America.

The back of the man’s sign read, “Rush has it right! Vote Santorum.”

Santorum then launched into what appeared to be an effort to contrast his stump style with that of Romney, portraying the former Massachusetts governor as “robotic” and consultant-driven.

“And I get a kick, I get a kick out of the media – and they complain so much about all of these structured candidates, all of these commoditized candidates, and how they are all sort of robotic, and how they just sort of do things according to their consultants,” he said.

“And then they complain about it. And then, of course, when they have a candidate that doesn’t do any of those things, they say, ‘Oh, wow, he’s really – he’s really out there. You’ve got to worry about everything he says.’ No you don’t. Because I’ll defend everything I say.”

A move by Santorum to blast the media during tomorrow’s debate would be a strategy similar to that of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who responded during a CNN debate last month to charges of unfaithfulness made against him by his former wife, Marianne Gingrich.

That strategy worked out well for Gingrich in the polls – days later, he bested Romney in South Carolina, although his campaign lost momentum soon after.

The danger for Santorum? He risks alienating independent voters by keeping the focus on of some of his outside-the-mainstream remarks.