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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.

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The candidates fought energetically over health care. Santorum said that Romney signed the Massachusetts state law that was enacted during Romney's term as governor and that served as a model for Obama's historic health care reform, which all the Republican candidates — including Romney — have vowed to repeal.

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The Massachusetts law, derided as "Romneycare" by his rivals, includes a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage that is similar to the one in Obama's federal law.

Romney tried to blame Santorum for encouraging more federal spending by voting five times while in Congress to raise the government's ability to borrow. Santorum retorted that when Romney was asked last year if he would support a pending debt-limit increase, "he said yes."

On foreign affairs, all four Republicans attacked Obama for his handling of Iran and its attempt to develop a nuclear program, but none of the contenders advocated providing arms to the rebels trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A new AP-GfK poll released Wednesday found Republicans remain about equally divided on whether they'd rather see Romney or Santorum capture the nomination. Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Paul lagged well behind.

The poll found that Obama would defeat any of the four remaining Republican contenders in a hypothetical matchup. It also found that the nation is showing more optimism about the state of the economy, the dominant issue in the race. Notably, the survey showed the president dominating among independents, a group central to Obama's 2008 victory.

The debate was happening amid indications it could be the last. Romney, Santorum and Paul decided to pull out of another joint event that had been set for Atlanta.

In the hours leading to the event, Romney called for a 20 percent across-the-board cut in personal income taxes as part of a program he said would revitalize the economy and help create jobs. Aides provided scant details.

In all, 518 Republican National Convention delegates are at stake between Feb. 28 and March 6, three times the number awarded in the states that have voted since the beginning of the year. It takes 1,144 to win the nomination.

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