MESA, Ariz. — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum clashed over which of them is the true conservative steward of taxpayers’ money as they grappled for advantage Wednesday night in a two-man grudge match heading toward 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 a bloated federal government. Each also accused the other of a record of wasteful spending in the past.
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, or 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 much needed in his state. And he noted that when Romney was rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, he sought earmarks to help finance the event.
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 controversial Alaska bridge funded by an earmark that Santorum voted for.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas 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.
It 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 locked in a neck-and-neck contest with Santorum in Michigan, with Santorum supported by 33.8 percent of likely voters and Romney supported by 33 percent, according to an average of public polls compiled by realclearpolitics.com.
A loss in Michigan would be embarrassing at the least for Romney, whose late father headed a Detroit-based auto company 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 lets look at the facts." He said that 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 costly auto-union costs that the bailouts didn't end.
Romney attacked Santorum for backing former Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania moderate, in his Republican primary battle with conservative Pat Toomey in 2004. Specter won. Then in April 2009 he became a Democrat — and a decisive vote in the party's successful effort to approve the 2010 health care law that most Republicans abhor.
Without Specter, Romney said, "We would not have had Obamacare."
Romney 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 said that federal spending actually shrank during his time in Congress when measured as a share of the overall economy. He also said that 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,” said Paul. “The American people are sick and tired of Congress.”
Contraception also sparked tense debate. Santorum says that he's "not a believer" in birth control. He defended that view passionately Wednesday, insisting that 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 speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich blasted President Barack Obama as too soft on Iran and Syria. But Paul insisted that the U.S. appears too eager to take military action.
Santorum said Syria was an Iranian "puppet state" and implied that regime change was needed, though he stopped short of saying what he would do.
Romney also avoided backing American military action in Syria, saying other countries in the region should provide military aid to Syrian rebels. But he insisted that he would not permit Iran to have nuclear weapons, as did Gingrich.
Paul said the U.S. 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 that the U.S. cannot afford more wars.
Asked to describe themselves in a single word, Paul said "consistent," Santorum said "courage," Romney said "resolute," and Gingrich said "cheerful."
For Gingrich, the debate was a chance to get back into the game after losing every contest since South Carolina on Jan. 21 and fading from sight. He used the spotlight to push an energy agenda that he said would cut gas prices to $2.50 a gallon and repeatedly insisted that only he could bring the sweeping fundamental change to Washington that the nation needs.
(Thomma reported from Arizona, Lightman from Michigan.)
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY