Updated 10:02 ET p.m. — Battling for the mantle of Republican frontrunner in the 2012 nominating contest, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum clashed on issues as varied as health care reform, the role of government and even political endorsements throughout a pivotal Republican presidential debate Wednesday night.
Less than a week before the kickoff of a key stretch in the battle for the GOP nomination, the former Massachusetts governor and the former Pennsylvania senatorsought to create some separation, largely through dredging up the other's past political missteps.
The debate, the 20th of the primary cycle, came at a particularly fluid point in the race. Arizona and Michigan host primaries on Tuesday, and 11 states will hold primaries or caucuses a week later on "Super Tuesday."
But it's Michigan — where Romney was raised and his father was governor — where the primary campaign has become a proxy battle for momentum in the battle for the nomination.
NBC poll: Romney, Santorum deadlocked in Michigan
Against that backdrop, Romney, attacked Santorum along similar themes he'd used on the campaign trail in recent weeks, tarring the former Pennsylvania senator as a career politician who abetted profligate spending.
"While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere," Romney said during an exchange over the congressional practice of earmarking.
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Santorum, a resurgent candidate since upsetting Romney in a trio of nominating contests earlier this month, assailed Romney as an inauthentic conservative of political convenience, particularly as it relates to the health reform law Romney signed as governor.
"I believe in markets, not just when they're convenient for me," he said in reference to Romney's support for a 2008 Wall Street bailout, and 2009 opposition to similar assistance to the auto industry.
[Tim Hacker / AP
Preparations continue on a stage at the Mesa Arts Center for Wednesday nights GOP presidential debate hosted by CNN and the Republican Party of Arizona on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012,.
The fireworks were what political observers had expected to emerge this evening at their latest — and possibly their last — debate.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, spent much of the debate reprising a role that had won him past success in debates, by playing antagonist to President Obama and the media, two favorite GOP bogeymen.
And Texas Rep. Ron Paul again employed his libertarianism to criticize all of the other Republicans onstage, sometimes to the benefit of Romney.
But the fight between Santorum and Romney was the heavyweight showdown of the evening, and the most persistent of tonight's debate. Their battles extended to most areas of discussion, like contraception or health reform, to some of the finer points of congressional endorsements and earmarking.
"It would be a very … difficult task for someone who had the model for ObamaCare, which is the biggest issue in this race of government in control of your lives, to be the nominee of our party," Santorum said during an exchange with Romney over funding for contraceptive services.
Romney reminded Santorum that the former Pennsylvania senator had endorsed him for president in 2008, during which Santorum praised Romney as the most conservative candidate. And he sought to defuse Santorum's criticism on "ObamaCare" by pointing out that Santorum had worked to re-elect Sen. Arlen Specter over conservative challenger Pat Toomey in 2004. (Specter ultimately left the GOP and became one of the decisive votes to past Obama's health reform law.)
"The reason we have Obamacare is because the senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania … he voted for ObamaCare," Romney said.
One of the few areas of agreement during the evening came on the matter of foreign policy, when Santorum and Romney argued for similarly hawkish policies.
Neither man seemed to land a knockout blow, however, making for an uncertain impact on Tuesday's primaries. The importance of debates has become a familiar refrain during the primary campaign, and each candidate had sought to make their last impact before the next few weeks of contests.
The most immediate challenge, though, comes in Michigan.
The NBC News-Marist poll released Wednesday found Romney leading Santorum by just two points – 37 to 35 percent – heading into the final few days of campaigning. A separate Detroit Free Press/WXYZ poll released Wednesdayevening showed Santorum in the lead, 37 to 35 percent.
Romney had been expected to skate by in February with its more lax schedule of major primaries and caucuses. The former Massachusetts governor had looked forward to a schedule this month featuring a number of contests he’d won in his 2008 presidential bid.
Santorum upset those calculations by sweeping a trio of contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7, and revitalized his campaign in the process. In addition to battling Romney in Michigan, Santorum has surged to lead Romney in national polling of the GOP primary.
Gingrich had sought to use tonight's meeting to infuse his campaign with new energy after skipping most of February's caucuses and primaries in favor of raising much-needed money. But the ex-speaker seemed relaxed by not having to spar as directly with GOP challengers, and focus instead on the GOP's common enemies.
"It is utterly stupid to say the United States government cannot control the border," Gingrich said on the matter of immigration, a key general election issue given the rising importance of the Latino electorate. That bloc, and the issue of immigration, is also important in Arizona, a border state.
Paul, meanwhile, stuck to the kind of message that's won him a loyal following within a segment of the Republican Party during his two bids for the presidency. He advocated a more limited foreign policy and argued for a radically smaller role for the federal government.
Paul hasn’t yet won any of the primaries or caucuses (the latter on which he’s specifically focused), but he’s managed to pick up some delegates in the process. The libertarian-minded congressman has fought on in the campaign, sometimes to the benefit of Romney, since Paul’s advertisements have gone after the former Massachusetts governor’s rivals.
Paul furthered that cause in defense of a new ad he's running in Michigan that is sharply critical of Santorum, casting him as inauthentically conservative.
Why did he run it, a moderator asked?
"Because it's true," Paul replied.