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Santorum: Romney and Paul in 'coordination' against me

Paul Sancya / AP

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greets an audience member Saturday after a Tea Party rally in St. Clair Shores, Mich.

ST. CLAIR SHORES, MI – Speaking to Tea Party activists Saturday, Rick Santorum charged Mitt Romney and Ron Paul with “coordinating” to block his momentum in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

“The coordination that I felt at that debate the other night was pretty clear,” Santorum said of a CNN debate in Arizona this week, where he sat between the two men and at times seemed to struggle under fire from each side. 

“I felt like, you know, messages were being slipped behind my chair,” he added.


Santorum’s remarks, which came in response to a question from a member of the audience, reflect growing attention on a theory about an unlikely political partnership.

“It is pretty remarkable in 20 debates that Ron Paul has never attacked Mitt Romney,” Santorum said. 

Calling him Romney’s “wingman,” Santorum said of Paul, “he is no conservative,” adding, “we don’t need the Ron Paul faction and the moderate establishment teamed up to attack the real conservative in this race.”

In fact, much of Santorum’s speech Saturday -- only three days before voters in Michigan and Arizona head to the polls in tight primary contests -- was focused on defining himself as a “real conservative.”

About a tax plan Romney unveiled this week, which would limit charitable deductions by wealthy taxpayers, Santorum said: “We have a Republican running for president who’s campaigning as an Occupy Wall Street adherent.” 

Earlier, Santorum said of Romney, “It’s absolutely laughable to have a liberal governor of Massachusetts suggest that I am not the conservative in this race.”

In a measure of how high the stakes are in Michigan, the Romney campaign deployed a surrogate to the event, who conversed with reporters as they hurriedly packed their things following the speech.

“Michigan voters want to see somebody who has experience turning around the economy,” said State Rep. Aric Nesbitt, the Romney surrogate, of his candidate.  

Nesbitt accused Santorum of voting “with big labor” in his opposition to a 1995 right-to-work bill.

But among the conservative activists here, there was palpable excitement about a message that has as much to do with values as the economy.

As Santorum made his way to a back door of the ballroom, a woman in the crowd introduced her son.

“My son’s going to be a first-time voter this year in the presidential election,” she said. “He’s looking forward to voting for you.”

Asked why she and her son are supporting Santorum, the woman, Tracey Jones, a health care worker in the battleground county of Macomb, told NBC News that her family lives by biblical principles.

“I think he’s the best candidate out there right now, because he’s standing for families,” Jones said, “and for the strong values that we uphold in our household.”