Mitt Romney pounces on Rick Santorum in TV debate

 

Mesa, Arizona

Rick Santorum, who for the last two weeks has zoomed to the first rank in the Republican nomination race, came face to face with the price of that success in last night’s televised debate in Arizona - concerted attacks from rivals Mitt Romney and Ron Paul as they sought to discredit his credentials as a social and fiscal conservative.

During two hours of often scratchy sparring in what may have been the last in a long series of primary debates, Mr Santorum was frequently on the defensive as he tried to explain past votes that seemed to undercut his record on for example opposing so-called earmarks, code for congressional dollops of money for parochial projects in members’ home states, and even on family planning, an issue that has been central to his conservative brand.

While Mr Romney, who was sideswiped by Mr Santorum’s sweep of three states in votes two weeks ago, had the most reason to go on the offensive, he was helped considerably by Mr Paul, the lone libertarian in the race. The Congressman from Texas threw repeated grenades at the former US Senator from Pennsylvania.

“I find it really fascinating that, when people are running for office, they’re really fiscally conservative,” Paul said, joining Mr Romney in accusing Mr Santorum of pleading for earmarks while in Congress “When they’re in office, they do something different.”  Early on in the debate he bluntly called Mr Santorum “a fake”.

Perhaps more damagingly he queried Mr Santorum’s opposition to birth control noting he had voted in favour of a bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood which helps women access contraception. “If you voted for Planned Parenthood like the senator has, you voted for birth control pills,” Paul said. “And you literally, because funds are fungible, you literally vote for abortions because Planned Parenthood gets the money.”

The memory most viewers may take from the debate, however, was of Mr Paul and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, sitting on the wings as the two men in the middle, Romney and Santorum, bickered about their records, often talking over one another and sometimes getting so tangled in the weeds of Washington process that the bigger picture of wanting to beat President Barack Obama in November became completely obscured.

“While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ ” Mr. Romney sniped, contrasting his success rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake Winter games with Mr Santorum voting to fund a construction project that has since become a symbol of wasteful federal spending.

Mr Santorum did not turn the other cheek.  “You’re misrepresenting the facts,” he shot back, inferring that Mr Romney was in fact lying or at least arguing from ignorance. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The stakes were high on stage with polls showing the two men essentially in a dead heat in voting set for next Tuesday both in Arizona and in Michigan. A loss for Mr Romney in the latter, where he was born and which once had his father, George Romney as its governor, could have devastating consequences for his campaign.

Next week’s votes take on additional significance, meanwhile, because they will set the stage for Super Tuesday, one week later, when 11 states will make their choices about who should be the party nominee.

Mr Gingrich, who stayed mostly aloof from the squabbling, was also looking for a fillip from the debate to stop his recent steep slide in the polls. “Newt Gingrich stayed presidential throughout,” Rick Perry, the Texas Governor who limped out of the race last month, said to reporters after the debate. “The middle chairs as they went after each other for a significant amount of time literally just got smaller.”

Mr Obama suffered the severest attacks on foreign policy and in particular for his handling of the crisis with Iran.  Mr Romney went to so far to assert that re-electing Mr Obama would in fact lead to Iran getting a nuclear bomb and triggering a global catastrophe. “If I am president, that will not happen,” he said, adding that he would make military action against Iran more than just an “option” as it has been termed by Mr Obama.

Mr Obama, he said, has “made it clear through his administration and almost every communication we've had so far that he does not want Israel to take action, he opposes military action. He should have instead communicated to Iran that we are prepared, that we are considering military options. They're not just on the table. They are in our hand.”

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