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Romney attacks Santorum over earmarks

Former senator defends old votes

 During last night’s debate, Mitt Romney accused Rick Santorum of supporting wasteful spending.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

During last night’s debate, Mitt Romney accused Rick Santorum of supporting wasteful spending.

MESA, Ariz. — Mitt Romney, fighting to reclaim his front-runner status before pivotal primaries in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, accused his top rival Rick Santorum last night of supporting wasteful spending, in a fast-moving debate that also featured tense confrontations over contraception and the federal auto bailout.

“While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere,” Romney told Santorum, who was seated next to him on stage.

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Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, criticized Romney for also relying on a targeted spending authorization — called an earmark — to help finance the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“Governor Romney asked for that earmark,’’ he said. “That’s really the point here. He’s out there on television ads right now, unfortunately, attacking me for saying that I’m this great earmarker, when he not only asked for earmarks for the Salt Lake Olympics in the order of tens of millions of dollars, [he] sought those earmarks and used them.’’

The former Massachusetts governor seized the offensive in the first debate since Santorum took the lead in national polls and moved into a close battle with Romney for the lead in Michigan and Arizona. Romney subjected Santorum to withering attacks throughout the evening.

Santorum sought to challenge Romney as well. But in perhaps his biggest event in the race, he was often pushed into lengthy explanations of years-old votes he said he now regrets.

The audience, as in past debates, was lively and vocal and often interrupted Santorum with boos when he waded into arcane legislative language to explain his deviations from conservative orthodoxy.

The debate, sponsored by CNN, was the 20th of the primary season but the last before the Michigan and Arizona primaries and before 10 states vote on Super Tuesday, March 6.

Romney put Santorum on the defensive by ticking off item after item in his rival’s long record in Congress that he said were inconsistent with conservative principles. Romney pointed, for example, to spending bills that Santorum supported that included financing for Planned Parenthood, and to Santorum’s support for Arlen Specter, a Republican who later turned Democrat, instead of a conservative Republican challenger in the 2004 Pennsylvania Senate race.

Santorum accused Romney of raising taxes and fees as governor of Massachusetts and using federal money to prop up the state’s universal health care law.

He also pointed out that the Massachusetts Constitution required Romney to balance the budget.

‘‘Don’t go around bragging about something you have to do,’’ Santorum said. ‘‘Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years — does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don’t think so.’’

A question about earmarks sparked one of the fiercest exchanges of the night. Once used by members of both parties to steer federal dollars to their districts, earmarks are now anathema to members of the Tea Party movement, who consider the budget practice a gateway to corruption.

Romney has been hammering Santorum’s record of frequently using them, seeking to cast his rival as a free-spending Washington insider.

Santorum acknowledged he had used earmarks to fund projects when he was a senator but said he would oppose them as president.

‘‘I defended that at the time,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m proud I defended it at the time, but I think they did make mistakes. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it, and as president I would oppose earmarks.’’

Romney offered a cutting retort to his rival’s labyrinthine response:

‘‘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.’’

Newt Gingrich, who has been plummeting in polls, mostly refrained from attacking his rivals and often assumed the tone of an elder statesman. But he took Romney to task for criticizing Santorum over earmarks in light of Romney’s pursuit of an earmark for the Olympics.

‘‘I think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got,’’ Gingrich told Romney. ‘‘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.’’

Ron Paul upbraided all his rivals but often seemed to aid Romney’s case by assailing Santorum’s support for spending in Congress that he says he now opposes. For example, when the moderator, CNN’s John King, asked Paul why he is running an ad that accuses Santorum of being ‘‘a fake,’’ Paul smiled.

‘‘Because he’s a fake,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m real, Ron,’’ Santorum said, rolling up his sleeve and showing his hands as if to prove the point. ‘‘I’m real.’’

When the discussion turned to birth control, the candidates all pounced on President Obama for recently enacting a rule, which he has since changed, that required religiously affiliated organizations to use health insurance plans that provide coverage for contraception.

‘‘I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama,’’ Romney said.

Santorum used the rule to offer a broader criticism of the breakdown of the two-parent family.

‘‘What we’re seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically, the impact on society with respect to drug use and a host of other things when children have children,’’ Santorum said.

But Paul said birth control was not to blame, at least not entirely, for social ills, arguing that ‘‘the pills can’t be blamed for the immorality of our society.’’

At one point, Romney denied that, as governor, he required Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.

‘‘No, absolutely no,’’ Romney said. ‘‘Of course not. There was no requirement in Massachusetts for the Catholic Church to provide morning-after pills to rape victims. That was entirely voluntary on their part.’’

But in December 2005, Romney required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.

He said at the time that he was acting on his legal counsel’s interpretation of a new state law — which he had vetoed but which was overridden by the Legislature. Romney said that in his ‘‘heart of hearts’’ he believed that rape victims should have access to emergency contraception.

Gingrich criticized Romney for enacting that rule.

‘‘The reports we got were quite clear that the Public Health Department was prepared to give a waiver to Catholic hospitals about a morning-after abortion pill,’’ Gingrich said. ‘‘And that the governor’s office issued explicit instructions saying that they believed it wasn’t possible under Massachusetts law to give them that waiver.’’

All the candidates oppose the bailout of the auto industry, but Santorum painted Romney as inconsistent on the issue because Romney supported the federal bailout of the banks.

‘‘He supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street, was all for it,’’ Santorum said. ‘‘And then when it came to the auto workers, the folks in Detroit, he said no. That to me is not a consistent, principled position.’’

Romney said that he wanted the auto companies to go through a managed bankruptcy, but he suggested that the crisis gripping the financial industry in 2008 was of a different scale.

‘‘I was concerned that if we didn’t do something, there were some pretty high risks that not just Wall Street banks, but all banks would collapse,’’ Romney said.

Santorum also criticized Romney for enacting Massachusetts’ universal health care law.

‘‘It would be a 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,’’ he said.

Romney responded by again reminding Santorum of his past: the endorsement he received from Santorum in the 2008 Republican primary.

‘‘Let’s not forget that four years ago, well after ‘Romney- Care’ was put in place, four years ago, you not only endorsed me . . . you said this is the guy who is really conservative and we can trust him,’’ Romney said. ‘‘Let’s not forget you said that.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.
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