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Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum Get Into Heated Exchange About Health Care At GOP Debate

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Former Governor Mitt Romney came under attack for his health care overhaul in Massachusetts during the last half of the first segment of Tuesday night's CNN debate. It was by far the toughest questioning he's faced from his fellow candidates during any of the nine debates that have occurred so far.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum opened the exchange by going after Romney, unprovoked. He said that Romney has "no credibility" in claiming that he wants to repeal President Obama's health plan, the Affordable Care Act, given that his Massachusetts legislation has been cited as the blueprint for it.

In response, Romney began to discuss what he wrote in his 2010 book, "No Apology," about Obama's health law. That caught the attention of another candidate, who seized on changes made to Romney's book between the hardcover and paperback versions.

"You took it out of your book," Texas Gov. Rick Perry interjected.

But Santorum didn't want to defer to Perry, and he kept attacking Romney.

"What you did is exactly what Barack Obama did," he said, adding that the law has "blown a hole in the budget" in Massachusetts.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) chimed in with what was perhaps a more nuanced criticism, at moderator Anderson Cooper's invitation. He said Romney's plan "is not Obamacare" but is "top-down" instead of "bottom-up."

"There’s a lot of big government behind Romneycare, not as much as Obamacare, but a heckuva lot more than your campaign is admitting," Gingrich said.

Romney shot back: "Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you."

Gingrich admitted that he has supported the idea in the past, but contested the notion that he was the source for Romney's plan, pointing the finger at The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

Though dinged up from the exchange, Romney was feisty and aggressive in defending himself. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) then chimed in and, in something of a life preserver for Romney, changed the subject to Obama's record on health care.

Yet the attacks by Santorum, in particular, show that the field has come to view Romney as the most formidable candidate in the race.

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