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Romney, Santorum turn up the heat in Michigan

Each say the other has compromised on key principles

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Voters looked over conservative memorabilia at the Americans for Prosperity presidential forum in Troy, Mich., yesterday. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum spoke at the event.

TROY, Mich. - Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum yesterday stepped up their mutual criticism in the final days before a crucial primary in Michigan, calling each other not sufficiently conservative to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Speaking at a Tea Party forum here, Romney accused Santorum of abandoning his conservative principles to trade favors in Washington. Santorum called the charge laughable, and suggested Romney was a political chameleon who is only now trying to remake himself as a conservative standard bearer.

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“What’s he going to be tomorrow?’’ Santorum asked.

The bitter back-and-forth illustrates the high stakes Tuesday in what polls show is a tight race.

Romney is fighting to prevent a loss in his native state that would sow further doubts about his ability to unite the party and win the nomination. Santorum is hoping for an upset win that would give him further momentum and demonstrate his ability to attract Rust Belt voters.

Romney’s chief charge yesterday was that Santorum was willing to abandon his principles to go along with the political needs of some in the Republican Party. He highlighted a line from Wednesday night’s debate in which Santorum said he had to “take one for the team’’ by voting for a federal No Child Left Behind law that he opposed on principle.

Romney also reminded voters that Santorum once supported Arlen Specter, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who later became a Democrat. Romney, criticizing Santorum for supporting the senator’s 1996 presidential campaign, noted that Specter favored abortion rights (a position that Romney, too, held at that time before becoming an abortion opponent a decade later).

“There was also 1996, when he supported Arlen Specter, by the way,’’ Romney said. “Arlen Specter, the only prochoice candidate we’ve seen in that race. There were other conservatives running, like Bob Dole. He didn’t support them. He supported the prochoice candidate, Arlen Specter.’’

At one point, Romney read aloud Santorum’s words when he endorsed Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“I can attest to my conservative credentials by quoting someone who endorsed me in my 2008 campaign,’’ Romney said. “Senator Santorum was kind enough to say on the ‘Laura Ingraham Show,’ he said, ‘Mitt Romney, this is a guy who is really conservative, and who we can trust.’ ’’

It marked another instance in which Romney - who has focused tightly on economic issues and on President Obama for much of his campaign - is having to stem the rise of Santorum by talking more about social issues and his conservative credentials.

“I was a prolife governor - I am still a prolife candidate,’’ Romney said. “I was a pro-traditional-marriage governor, and am so as a candidate. And I am a conservative.’’

At a Tea Party event in the working-class Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores, Santorum mocked Romney for questioning his conservativism.

“It’s laughable for Mr. Romney to suggest that I am not conservative,’’ he said, calling his main rival for the nomination “a liberal governor of Massachusetts.’’

Santorum ran through a litany of objections to Romney’s own claim for conservatism, saying the health care overhaul he put in place was the template for President Obama’s federal law. And he criticized Romney for supporting the Wall Street bailout and a tax plan that he said didn’t go far enough.

“This is an issue of trust,’’ Santorum said.

Romney and Santorum appeared several hours apart at an Americans for Prosperity forum in Troy, giving voters a chance to see their primary choices back-to-back.

The other two Republican candidates in the race - Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich - have not devoted much time to Michigan.

Jean Robertson and Charles Shivel, a married couple from the town of Gibraltar, heard both speeches and came away with different opinions.

Robertson viewed Santorum as more genuine. “I think Santorum is the more conservative of the two,’’ she said. “I don’t think what Romney says about him is true. He’s not the kind of ‘team player’ that Romney says he is. Santorum’s not going to be like that, he’s not a Washington insider. But sometimes you have to do things to get what you want.’’

Shivel said he has nothing to dislike about Santorum but views Romney as more electable.

“Romney is more well-rounded,’’ he sad. “He’s got the life experience and the business experience we need as president.’’

Romney yesterday was joined by his wife, Ann, and the two of them seemed happy to be near their hometown, and happy to remind voters of the fact.

“I like to tell people, if you cut us open and we bleed, we bleed Vernors,’’ Ann Romney said, in reference to the local ginger ale. “You got to know that when you grow up in Michigan, you drink Vernors. And the other thing you do is you listen to Tiger baseball.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com.
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