By DAVID ESPO, ASSOCIATED PRESS
MESA, Ariz. — Primed for a fight, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum traded fiery accusations about health care, spending earmarks and federal bailouts Wednesday night in the 20th and possibly final debate of the roller-coaster race for the Republican presidential nomination.
With pivotal primaries in Arizona and Michigan just six days distant, Romney and Santorum sparred more aggressively than in past debates, sometimes talking over each other's answers.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul chimed in from the side, saying with a smile that Santorum was a fake conservative who had voted for programs that he now says he wants to repeal. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich acted almost as a referee at times.
The most animated clash of the evening focused on health care.
Santorum, surging in the presidential race, said that Romney had used government funds to "fund a federal takeover of health care in Massachusetts," a reference to the state law that was enacted during Romney's term as governor. The law includes a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage that is similar to the one in President Barack Obama's landmark federal law that Romney and other Republicans have vowed to repeal.
In rebuttal, Romney said Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, bore responsibility for passage of the health care law that Obama won from a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010, even though he wasn't in office at the time. He said that in a primary battle in 2004, Santorum had supported then-Sen. Arlen Specter, who later switched parties and voted for the law Obama wanted.
"He voted for Obamacare. If you had not supported him, if we had said no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obamacare," Romney contended.
Santorum was the aggressor on bailouts.
While all four of the Republicans on the debate stage opposed the federal bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, Santorum said he had voted against other government-funded rescue efforts.
"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. That to me is not a principled consistent position."
The debate had a different look from the 19 that preceded it. Instead of standing behind lecterns, the four presidential rivals sat in chairs lined up side by side.
There was another difference, as well, in the form of polls that underscored the gains that Obama has made in his bid for re-election.
An Associated Press-Gfk poll released Wednesday 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.
But for two hours, Romney, Santorum, Paul and Gingrich had a different campaign in mind, their own race for the Republican nomination and the right to oppose Obama in the fall.
After a brief lull, the campaign calendar calls for 13 primaries and caucuses between next Tuesday, when Arizona and Michigan have primaries, and March 6, a 10-state Super Tuesday.
Romney is campaigning confidently in Arizona, so much so that his campaign has not aired any television ads.
But the former Massachusetts governor faces an unexpectedly strong challenge in his home state of Michigan, where Santorum is hoping to spring an upset. Santorum's candidacy has rebounded in the two weeks since he won caucuses in Minnesota, Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri.
The result is a multimillion-dollar barrage of television commercials in Michigan in which the candidates and their allies swap accusations in hopes of tipping the race.
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.
The dynamic of the campaign – Santorum challenging Romney – made their clashes inevitable.
Romney said Santorum voted five times while in Congress to raise the government's ability to borrow, supported retention of a law that favors construction unions and supported increased spending for Planned Parenthood. He said federal spending rose 78 percent overall while the former Pennsylvania senator was in Congress.
Santorum retorted that government spending declined as a percentage of the economy when he was in the Senate, and he noted that when Romney was asked last year if he would support a then-pending debt-limit increase, "he said yes."
There was a clash over federal spending earmarks, as well, and Gingrich sought to intervene as if serving as a referee instead of a debate participant.
He said he supported the earmarks that Romney had sought for the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, then accused Romney of observing a double standard by running television ads attacking Santorum for having voted for different earmarks.
He said it was silly for Romney to take the position that "what you got was right and what he got was wrong."
In the hours leading to Wednesday night's debate, 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. The top tax rate would drop from 35 percent to 28 percent, and some popular breaks would be scaled back for upper-income taxpayers. However, aides provided scant details.
"We've got to have more jobs, less debt and smaller government, they go together," Romney said in an appearance in nearby Chandler. "By lowering those marginal rates, we help businesses that pay at the individual tax rate to have more money so they can hire more people."
Romney's proposal sharpened his differences with Obama, who favors allowing tax cuts enacted under President Bush to expire on higher incomes.
Santorum, who has emerged as Romney's leading challenger in the Republican race, campaigned at a tea party gathering in Tucson, where he said his rival's new tax proposal largely mirrored one he had had already made.
"Welcome to the party, governor, it's great to have you along," he said.
Santorum's rise in the race has left Gingrich and Paul on the outside looking for a way in.
The former House speaker has yet to recover from a campaign nosedive that began after he won the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, and he is pinning his hopes on his home state of Georgia to begin a comeback on March 6.
His campaign announced plans Wednesday to buy 30-minute blocks of television time in upcoming primary and caucus states for an infomercial on reducing energy prices.
Gingrich's decision not to campaign in Michigan so far has allowed Santorum to compete against Romney without also having to fend off a rival for the votes of conservatives.
Paul has yet to win any primaries or caucuses.
He has weighed in against Santorum, though, airing an ad in Michigan that challenges the former senator's claim of taking a conservative line against federal spending. The ad says Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times, and also supported legislation that created a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
(From delegates to Twitter followers, click here for a rundown on who's running ahead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.)
Below, HuffPost's live blog coverage of the debate.
|@ samsteinhp : Santorum on Fox says Romney is right that the state mandate is lawful. still argues that it's the wrong approach|
Think Progress' Igor Volsky tweets this quote from Rick Santorum, who went into the spin room himself after the debate: "You've got to ask Congressman Paul and Governor Romney what they've got going together"
Paul and Romney do like each other on a personal level. But their political alliance has become one of the defining features of this GOP primary.
-- Sam Stein
|@ ZekeJMiller : Jan Brewer on who won debate: I think Mitt Romney had a great night|
“I always say if you want to know what foreign policy position to take, find out what Joe Biden’s position is and take the opposite opinion and you’ll be right 100 percent of the time,” Rick Santorum said during CNN’s Republican debate in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday night.
That’s not quite true. In fact, two of the most consequential laws passed during the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 featured yes votes from both Biden and Santorum.
Both voted on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed unanimoiusly, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A month later, in October 2001, both voted for the Patriot Act, passed by a 98-1 vote.
Of course, those votes came during the days when a bipartisan atmosphere prevailed in Congress as lawmakers rallied around President George W. Bush’s launch of the so-called war on terror in reaction to Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But their unity was not limited to the early days of the post-9/11 era. In early 1995, for example, both men supported the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, passed 93-5, resolving to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That bill was left unsigned by then-President Bill Clinton, and despite becoming law, never led to the embassy’s move.
On the 2012 campaign trail, both Santorum and Newt Gingrich have stated that they will move the embassy to Jerusalem as a first move as president.
-- Mike Sacks
|@ ariannahuff : Judging by tonight's debate, you'd think the economy was a-okay.|
|@ samsteinhp : Bob Dole prepared stm: "I've watched a lot of debates in my years. I've seldom seen a candidate shine like Mitt Romney shined tonight" #sure|
|@ thegarance : Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer says debate was so "fabulous" that she's "even more confused" abt who to back. #CNNdebate|
|@ aterkel : Donald Trump on Romney: "He'll protect us against OPEC." Whew. #cnndebate|
|@ SarahPalinUSA : Newt's message on energy development was spot-on. Drill now and stop bowing to foreign regimes begging them to do... http://t.co/eJP0x5Tl|
|@ HuffPostPol : Big obstacle for Mitt Romney: His likability problem not solved by talking http://t.co/uUDO54e8 #CNNdebate|
|@ zachdcarter : No tax policy questions on day Romney, Obama release new tax proposals. #CNNDebate|
The audience at the GOP debates has become perhaps as famous and newsworthy as the candidates themselves. In September, some audience members booed a gay soldier who asked a question about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Then there were the times they cheered the death penalty and Newt Gingrich slamming moderator Juan Williams for asking about charges of racial insensitivity.
During Wednesday's debate in Mesa, Ariz., the audience booed moderator John King's question about contraception -- a topic much in the news lately -- and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) for urging caution when dealing with Iran.
"Since the birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control -- and if not, why?" asked King.
The question is was not crazy. Santorum has said that he personally does not believe in using birth control -- although he would not outlaw it for everyone -- and he doesn't think that health insurance should cover it.
Paul faced some boos when he said there was "no evidence" that Iran has a nuclear weapon.
Rick Santorum also faced a few boos after he defended supporting earmarks while in Congress.
-- Amanda Terkel
The biggest obstacle between Mitt Romney and the White House has long been his inability to connect with regular voters, to get people -- even his supporters -- to like him as a person.
In wrapping up Wednesday's debate, Romney gave a glimpse of the aloof affect that can lead to that disconnect. CNN's John King asked each candidate to lay out what the greatest misconception about each was. When Romney's turn came, he reverted to his stump speech. King tried to stop him and remind him that there was an actual question on the table.
"You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers I want," Romney told King, deploying the entitlement-tinged phrases "I get" and "I want" in the same sentence, coming off, for lack of a better description, as a class-A jerk.
"Fair enough," said King.
-- Ryan Grim
|@ samsteinhp : Romney actually directly lobbied the dreaded Arlen Specter for federal money http://t.co/VV49EcOY|
When Mitt Romney mentioned early in the debate the quagmire in Syria, where disparate opposition forces are engaged in a complex and sectarian-fueled battled against a brutal and increasingly violent regime, his analysis was skin-deep: "Syria is in flux." When John King brought the issue up again, later on, Romney ended up being the only candidate to seriously and substantive engage the question, arguing that President Barack Obama needs to take advantage of a rare moment to force out an Iranian ally, by joining with local Allawites, and friendly Saudis and Turks, to abandon Syrian President Bashar Assad and funnel weapons to the opposition. (Nevermind that Hillary Clinton is in Tunisia this week to meet with a "Friends of Syria" group, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to find a way to do just that.)
The other candidates were far less inclined to answer the question, in all likelihood because there is no easy answer. Rick Santorum accused Obama of failing to directly confront Syria from day one, faulting him for opening an embassy once again, and then for closing it only when it became too dangerous to operate (embassy staff have always insisted they were most effective in helping the opposition while in the country), but offered little concrete suggestions for ways to move forward. Newt Gingrich suggested that the U.S. should have its "allies covertly destroy the Assad regime," adding: "There are plenty of Arab-speaking groups that would be quite happy" to do that. Who, precisely, he did not specify, but presumably he does not mean these guys.
-- Joshua Hersh
|@ DanAmira : "Fair enough" is what John King says whenever he is publicly emasculated|
|@ fivethirtyeight : Santorum dropped quite a bit on Intrade during the debate. Now just 6.8% chance of winning GOP nomination, started at 11%|
Former Gov. Mitt Romney spent much of the middle of Wednesday's night GOP debate criticizing former Sen. Rick Santorum on two fronts: being a prodigious spender of federal funds and for supporting former Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat who has, for conservatives, come to resemble the worst of GOP moderation.
It was an effective dual-barrel attack, one that put Santorum squarely on the defensive and with little support inside the debate hall. Had he had his wits about him, he could have pointed to an October 2005 press release, in which Romney not only publicly acknowledged he was lobbying the federal government for money on home heating assistance, but was turning to Specter to get him the dough.
“As a state, Massachusetts and its people have led the way in pursuing energy efficient programs for our homes and businesses,” said Romney. “This year, it’s especially important for consumers to know that winter doesn't have to burn a hole in their wallet. Families can save hundreds of dollars by following some common sense tips.”
Low-income residents in Massachusetts are expected to be particularly affected by increases in energy costs this winter. With heating prices on the rise, Romney and Governor Granholm of Michigan have led an effort among the nation’s governors to obtain approximately $1.3 billion in emergency federal fuel assistance funding through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Yesterday, Romney met with Senator Arlen Specter, Chairman of a key Senate Appropriations subcommittee, to lobby for the additional funding.
Specter, at the time, was chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee, which oversaw LIHEAP funding. So the fact that Romney would come to him with palms open makes sense. But it doesn't particularly help his position with respect to the 2012 Republican primary. In a Telegram and Gazette article from that same time, Romney's spokeswoman Julie Teer offered the following summary of that Specter-Romney meeting.
"The governor feels that Mr. Specter will have a sympathetic ear since he also represents a state in the Northeast," Ms. Teer said. "Gov. Romney would like as much federal assistance as we can get but he recognizes that it may be a difficult process."
-- Sam Stein
|@ maggiepolitico : Santo to CNN:"I think this was a pretty favorable Romney crowd"|
|@ HuffPostHill : TONIGHT'S WINNER: No one. TONIGHT'S LOSER: Grimace from McDonaldland, who had to die to make Newt Gingrich's tie.|
|@ howardfineman : Problem is that santo's nice summation about principle wasnt backed up by the substance of the debate .|
The Republican candidates have not addressed unemployment so far in the CNN debate. The unemployment rates in the next two states to vote -- Arizona and Michigan -- are 8.7 percent and 9.3 percent, respectively.
-- Arthur Delaney
A little earlier in the debate, Mitt Romney took credit for balancing the Massachusetts state budget all four years he was governor. Rick Santorum took issue with the credit-claiming, noting that former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis also balanced the state's budget for a full decade.
It doesn't actually take much political prowess to balance a budget as a governor, since most states are required by their constitutions to to balance their budgets every fiscal year.
According to the official Massachusetts budgetary process, "State finance law (Chapter 29 of the Massachusetts General Laws) requires the Legislature and the Governor to approve a balanced budget for each fiscal year. In other words, the Commonwealth cannot spend more than it receives in revenue. Further, during the fiscal year, the Governor may approve no supplementary appropriation bills that would result in an unbalanced budget."
The federal government, by contrast, has the power to both print money and run deficits.
A more important test of a governor's budgetary prowess is what they accomplish with their legally mandated balanced budgets. And Romney's balanced budgets in Massachusetts accompanied an underwhelming record on jobs. As The Washington Post has reported, Romney's Massachusetts was one of just a handful that never fully recovered the jobs it lost in the 2001 recession, alongside rust belt states of Ohio and Michigan. Only one state posted a bigger drop in the labor force than Massachusetts during Romney's tenure as governor: Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Louisiana.
-- Zach Carter
|@ howardfineman : This debate has been a slow-motion meat grinder for Santorum. He sounded like a deal-cutting pol, and not a nominee let alone a president.|
|@ HuffingtonPost : Ron Paul: 'Perpetuation of the myth by the media that I can't win' is biggest misconception about me http://t.co/SRHA0Hq2 #CNNdebate|
|@ Bthypin : Did anyone else catch that "Frothy Santorum: Lube and Fecal Matter" sign during the cutaway to commercial? Classic http://t.co/qHGZckmz|
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, best known for his controversial and inflammatory policies toward undocumented immigrants, was in the audience for Wednesday night's debate in Mesa, Ariz.
Debate moderator John King gave Arpaio a shout-out, saying the sheriff told him recently that it's "political garbage, if you will, to not arrest illegals already in this country."
Watch a Huffington Post interview with Randy Parraz, president of Citizens for a Better Arizona.
-- Amanda Terkel
to "counterbalance" family planning."I said we're going to create something called Title XX, which will provide programs that actually work in keeping children from being sexually active instead of facilitating children being sexually
active," he said.
Ron Paul made the point that spending government money on an abstinence program is no more of a conservative position than spending money on a family planning program.
"John, this demonstrates the problem I'm talking about," Paul said. "It's not a program of the federal government to get involved in our lives this way ... The government shouldn't be spending money on abstinence -- I don't see that in the Constitution any place."
Mitt Romney then pointed out that Santorum actually voted for bills that included Title XX funding. Santorum admitted that this was the case, even though he personally opposes contraception and family planning.
"I think I was making it clear that while I have a personal moral objection to it, even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it," he said, drawing heavy boos from the crowd.
-- Laura Bassett
Related on HuffPost: