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Republican debate: Romney fights to win against surging Santorum

Mitt Romney used Wednesday's Republican debate to go head-to-head with his leading challenger, Rick Santorum.

By Associated Press / February 22, 2012

Republican debate showdown: Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum (l.) and Mitt Romney talk following a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, in Mesa, Ariz.

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic/AP

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Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who has emerged as Romney's leading challenger in the Republican presidential race, clashed over the federal government's power Wednesday in a high-stakesdebate that might have been the last in the roller-coaster campaign to challenge President Barack Obama.

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The debate was held in the southwestern state of Arizona six days before crucial votes there and in Romney's native state of Michigan. The industrial state is now a must-win for Romney, who won it when he ran in 2008 and had been expected to win there again.

Now, however, Romney faces a surging Santorum, whose candidacy has rebounded in the two weeks since he won three contests on the same day. Romney, meanwhile, still faces skepticism among conservatives who dislike his shifting stances on key issues.

A victory in Michigan — no matter who claims it — would provide essential momentum in the state-by-state race ahead of the 10 contests held on the same day a week later, the huge battle known as Super Tuesday.

Santorum, a former senator, was the debate's aggressor on federal bailouts — a key issue in Michigan, where the U.S. auto industry is based. GM and Chrysler have since recovered after taking massive bailouts, forcing Romney to explain a 2008 editorial provocatively headlined, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

While Santorum opposed the auto bailouts, he tried to exploit his rival's position by saying that unlike Romney, he took a consistent stand when he also opposed the federal bank bailouts after the economy collapsed.

"With respect to Governor Romney that was not the case, he supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street — was all for it — and when it came to the auto workers and the folks in Detroit, he said no," Santorum said. "That to me is not a principled consistent position."

Santorum, though, was called a "fake" conservative by Texas Rep. Ron Paul for voting for federal programs that he now says he wants to repeal. Santorum was booed by the audience for his explanation of why he voted several years ago for the massive federal education reform bill known as No Child Left Behind, even though he had opposed it.

"Look, politics is a team sport, folks," he said of the measure backed by Republican President George W. Bush and other Republicans.

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