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Originally published February 22, 2012 at 9:43 PM | Page modified February 23, 2012 at 3:47 PM

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Romney, Santorum focus on spending records in key debate

Each Republican presidential candidate cast himself as someone who would cut spending and slash the federal government. Each accused the other of a record of wasteful spending.

McClatchy Newspapers

The campaign trail

Ripping Romney: The super PAC supporting President Obama ran its first commercial of the year, highlighting Mitt Romney's opposition to the auto bailout. Michigan viewers started seeing the ad Wednesday, and it will run in the Flint and Detroit markets through Tuesday.

Gingrich address: Newt Gingrich will take his campaign's recent focus on reducing energy costs and boosting domestic production to the airwaves with a 30-minute infomercial-style address that will appear in key cities that vote on Super Tuesday, March 6.

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MESA, Ariz. — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum clashed over which of them is the true conservative steward of taxpayer money as they grappled Wednesday night in a two-man grudge match, six days before critical votes in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday.

In a nationally televised debate on CNN, each Republican presidential candidate cast himself as someone who would cut spending and slash the federal government. Each accused the other of a record of wasteful spending.

Santorum, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007, frequently was put on the defensive about his voting record. He took fire for seeking earmarks, local projects that congressional lawmakers insert into spending bills.

Santorum gave a lengthy, sometimes confusing explanation. He talked about "good earmarks and bad earmarks" and said some projects were needed in his state. And he noted that Romney sought earmarks as he was rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Romney fired back: "While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere," he said, a reference to a Santorum-backed earmark for a never-built Alaska bridge.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul jumped in as well, slamming Santorum for calling himself a fiscal conservative. "He's a fake," Paul said, citing Santorum's vote for the No Child Left Behind education act and now campaigning to repeal it.

But Santorum, unlike other Republican opponents whom Romney has targeted during this unwieldy primary battle, did not recoil. He returned the attacks as forcefully as they were delivered, at one point dismissing Romney's argument that he balanced the Massachusetts budget.

"Don't go around bragging about something you have to do," Santorum 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."

Wednesday's event was the last debate — and last chance to shake up the race — before Tuesday's primaries in Arizona and Michigan and then in 10 states on March 6, "Super Tuesday."

Romney is in a neck-and-neck contest with Santorum in Michigan. A Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll released Wednesday shows the former senator with a 3 percentage-point lead over Romney. While Santorum's lead in the poll was less than what some surveys showed last week and was within the 5-point margin of error, he clearly hasn't faded as the more well-organized and better funded Romney campaign unleashed a barrage of TV ads and robocalls over the past week.

A loss in Michigan would be embarrassing at the least for Romney, whose late father headed now-defunct American Motors in Detroit and was a popular Michigan governor in the 1960s.

Romney, governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, leads Santorum in Arizona by an average of 8 percentage points in polls.

Santorum tore into Romney for supporting Wall Street bailouts in 2008, but opposing aid to the auto industry.

"That to me is not a consistent, principled position," Santorum said.

"Nice try," Romney fired back, "now let's look at the facts." He said he didn't favor bailing out any Wall Street bank, but the issue was avoiding the loss of "all our banks."

As for opposing auto bailouts, he said the better answer was a "managed bankruptcy" that would have saved U.S. firms from expensive auto-union costs that the bailouts didn't end.

And, in an unusual twist, Romney pinned part of the blame for President Obama's health-care law on Santorum's backing of former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in his Republican primary battle with Pat Toomey in 2004.

Specter won, switched to the Democratic Party in April 2009 and then was the decisive vote in the party's successful effort to approve the 2010 law that most Republicans abhor.

Romney also criticized Santorum's record in Congress, saying he had voted to raise the debt ceiling five times without demanding spending cuts in return and watching as federal spending grew by 80 percent.

Santorum contended that federal spending shrank during his time in Congress when measured as a share of the economy. He also said he had a more conservative voting record on budget issues than 50 other Republican senators.

"I was the most fiscally conservative senator in the years I was there," Santorum said.

"That's a cop-out, ranking yourself against other members of Congress," Paul said. "The American people are sick and tired of Congress."

Contraception also sparked tense debate. Santorum says he's "not a believer" in birth control. He defended that view passionately Wednesday, insisting family and religious values need to be re-emphasized. Too many children are born into single-parent families, a sure path to poverty, he said.

There was general agreement on foreign policy — except for Paul.

Romney, Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blasted Obama as too soft on Iran and Syria. But Paul insisted the United States appears too eager to take military action.

Santorum said Syria was an Iranian "puppet state" and implied regime change was needed, though he stopped short of saying what he would do.

Romney also avoided backing military action in Syria, saying other countries in the region should provide military aid to Syrian rebels. But he insisted he would not permit Iran to have nuclear weapons, as did Gingrich.

Paul said the United States has no firm evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon and that U.S. threats were encouraging Iran to pursue one "because they feel threatened." He insisted the country cannot afford more wars.

Information from The New York Times and Detroit Free Press is included in this report.

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