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Romney, Santorum campaigns trade barbs

Spar over who is more conservative

After weeks of belittling rival Newt Gingrich’s leadership abilities, Mitt Romney’s campaign has found another target.

“Rick Santorum is a nice guy, but he is simply not ready to be president,’’ Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and a Romney surrogate, said in a statement yesterday from the Romney campaign. “Plus, he wants Minnesota conservatives to believe he’s as conservative as they are, but he’s not.’’

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The statement was one of several barbed exchanges between the two presidential campaigns over such issues as Romney’s backing of the Massachusetts health care law and Santorum’s use of earmarks when he was a senator.

The attacks came as Republicans prepared to hold today’s caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a nonbinding primary in Missouri. While Romney is widely expected to win Colorado, Minnesota could be tight.

Romney won Minnesota’s caucuses in 2008. But he is the only candidate not campaigning there this week. Missouri could also be a close race between Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press’’ Sunday, Santorum said Romney “sided with big government’’ on issues including health care and cap and trade emission rules as a response to global warming. Romney’s health care overhaul included an individual mandate, similar to President Obama’s national plan. Romney has defended his plan while opposing Obama’s. Romney joined a regional cap and trade energy pact as Massachusetts governor, then pulled out.

Romney responded yesterday with a press release chronicling Santorum’s “false attacks on Massachusetts health care,’’ citing several stories on the independent fact-checking websites.

The Romney campaign scheduled a conference call with Pawlenty to talk about Santorum’s “long history of pork-barrel spending,’’ in which Pawlenty mentioned earmarks Santorum voted for including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere’’ in Alaska. In an e-mailed statement, Pawlenty described Santorum as a “leading earmarker and pork-barrel spender.’’

Santorum responded with a release tagging Romney as a moderate who is out of touch with Republican politics. “Governor Romney does what he always does and directs his well-funded attack machine to destroy the opponent,’’ said Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley.

The Santorum campaign pointed to Romney’s requests for federal money to fund the 2002 Winter Olympics, which Romney managed, and the Big Dig construction project in Boston.

The back-and-forth illustrates the growing negativity on all sides in the GOP primary, as Santorum, Gingrich, and Ron Paul fight to become the viable alternative to Romney and to prevent Romney from racking up enough victories to be seen as the inevitable nominee.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.
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