Santorum Takes His Lumps At GOP Debate

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The four remaining rivals for the GOP presidential nomination debated in Mesa, Ariz., Wednesday night, ahead of next week's primary. It was the first debate in which Rick Santorum was featured as the main threat to former front-runner Mitt Romney. Rep. Ron Paul kept up his own line of fire against Santorum.

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The most popular political TV series in years had one more episode last night. Republicans held the latest of many debates, this time in Arizona, and for now this stands as a last look. The candidates have not yet committed to any additional debates, as more than a dozen states vote in the next couple of weeks.

Last night on CNN, the four candidates sat next to each other at a table, which brought the long-time frontrunner Mitt Romney shoulder-to-shoulder with Rick Santorum, the latest man to challenge him.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mitt Romney's frontrunner status has been threatened before, most recently by Newt Gingrich. In previous debates, Romney responded to that threat by eviscerating Gingrich. Last night it was Rick Santorum's turn in the dock, and Romney used his answer to the very first question to savage Santorum's record as a fiscal conservative.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: Voting for raising the debt ceiling five different times without voting for compensating cuts.

SHAPIRO: He continued through a laundry list of votes Santorum made as a senator from Pennsylvania, supporting the education program No Child Left Behind and funding for Planned Parenthood.

Santorum replied that Romney was no better.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK SANTORUM: Well, the governor talks about raising the debt ceiling. There was a debt ceiling vote this summer and the governor was asked a question whether he would've voted to raise the debt ceiling ultimately and he said yes.

SHAPIRO: On No Child Left Behind, Santorum said he had made a mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SANTORUM: You're right, it led to education spending. That's why I've said that we need to cut and eliminate No Child Left Behind and education funding from the federal government.

SHAPIRO: Throughout the debate, Romney had a wing man in Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who kept up his own line of fire against Santorum.

Moderator John King of CNN asked Paul about an attack ad that labels Santorum a fake.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

JOHN KING: Why?

RON PAUL: Because he's a fake.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: While the audience roared, Santorum held out his arm and said: I'm real, Ron, I'm real. Congressman Paul replied: Congratulations.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PAUL: No, I find it really fascinating that when people are running for office, they're really fiscally conservative. When they're in office, they do something different. And then when they explain themselves, they say, oh, I want to repeal that.

SHAPIRO: Over a score of debates, stretching back to last May, Santorum has never before been the target of the crossfire, but after he won three events on February 7th, all that changed. Last night it seemed as though everyone else had been saving up their ammunition for this moment. And Santorum was at times awkward in responding. When Romney accused him of supporting earmarks in the Senate, Santorum said there are good earmarks and bad ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SANTORUM: I do believe there was abuse and I said we should stop it. And as president I would oppose earmarks.

KING: Governor?

ROMNEY: I didn't follow all of that, but I can tell you this: I would put a ban on earmarks. I think it opens the door to excessive spending, spending on projects that don't need to be done. I think there are a lot of projects that have been voted for. You voted for the Bridge to Nowhere.

SHAPIRO: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped in to back up Santorum -noting that Romney sought out earmarks for the Winter Olympics in Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got. I just think it's kind of silly for you to then turn around and run an ad attacking somebody else for getting what you got and then claiming what you got wasn't what they got because what you got was right and what they got was wrong.

SHAPIRO: Gingrich did not seem especially happy to be relegated to the role of backup singer. But if he was trying to unseat Santorum as the more conservative alternative, Gingrich never quite seized the moment.

On one issue after another, Romney and Santorum fought through clenched smiles. They even clashed over issues on which they agree, such as federal aid to car companies. Both men oppose it. But Santorum says Romney's position on bailouts is not consistent enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

SANTORUM: He supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street, was all for it. And then when it came to the autoworkers and the folks in Detroit, he said no.

SHAPIRO: This is a major issue in Michigan. That state votes in six days, along with Arizona; a dozen more states come soon after that. But a loss in Michigan would be an especially heavy blow for Romney, who grew up there. Romney won the state four years ago, and last night he reminded Santorum of one reason why.

ROMNEY: Four years ago, you not only endorsed me, you went on Laura Ingraham and said and this is the guy who is really conservative and we can trust him. Let's not forget you said that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: Just outside the hall, hundreds of people watched on an outdoor screen in a balmy evening.

When the debate ended, the street party continued with music booming out over the speaker system. It will be weeks before we know whether there will be any more post-debate parties until the fall.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Mesa, Arizona.

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