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.
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.
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.
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.