MESA, Ariz. -- Rick Santorum received another lesson Wednesday on why it's not easy to be at the top. With strong poll numbers in Michigan and Arizona, the two upcoming primaries, Santorum faced a barrage of attacks during the debate here from fellow front-runner Mitt Romney and his unlikely ally, Ron Paul.
"He's fake," Paul said of Santorum early in CNN debate, hosted by John King. "I think his record's so bad as a politician."
That became a theme of the attacks over the course of the debate. Romney took shots at Santorum, but in many instances Paul went after him harder, questioning his leadership and small-government bona fides.
In Arizona and Michigan next Tuesday, the race is effectively down to Romney and Santorum -- something of an embarrassment for Romney, given his longstanding ties to Michigan. He has played up those ties with commercials about growing up in Michigan when his father was governor. Santorum, though, has a good chance to take the primary there, and the Romney campaign has responded by attempting to dial-down expectations, although that doesn't mean the two were any less testy during the debate.
The four men sat at a table, rolling their eyes and shrugging with annoyance as other candidates mentioned them. That gave the debate a more contentious feel, with numerous jabs back and forth. "You're entitled to your opinion, but you're not entitled to misrepresent the facts," Santorum told Romney during a discussion of congressional earmarks. "I've heard that line before," Romney said, waving his hand dismissively.
Santorum, bruised by repeated attacks led by Paul, suggested to reporters after the debate that Romney and Paul may be colluding against him.
"You have to ask Congressman Paul and Governor Romney what they've got going together. Their commercials look a lot alike and so do their attacks," Santorum said in the spin room.
Romney strategist Stuart Stevens brushed off the idea that Paul would intentionally help Romney on stage. "I read the stuff and I laugh," he said of the implication the two men are allies. "I think they like each other,"
"One thing you have to say about Ron Paul: at any given moment he is always true to himself and says whatever he believes," Stevens told reporters in the spin room. "At any given moment, (he) calls them like he sees them."
Still, that often boiled down to Paul going after Santorum, and almost never attacking Romney. He dealt one blow on No Child Left Behind, former President George W. Bush's education reform bill that Santorum voted for and now opposes.
"You know, politics is a team sport, folks," Santorum said. "And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something. And in this case, you know, I thought testing was -- and finding out how bad the problem was wasn't a bad idea."
That led Paul to question Santorum's leadership and to insist he is a Washington insider, a message candidates have been trying to pin on Santorum as his campaign gains steam.
"He calls it a team sport," Paul said of Santorum. "He has to go along to get along and that's the way the team plays. But that's what the problem is with Washington. That's what's been going on for so long."
Paul later insisted that some of Santorum's policies would amount to more government interference, not less. Santorum defended voting for Title X, which provides federal funding for family planning, by saying he also supported Title XX for abstinence education in schools.
"John, this demonstrates the problem I'm talking about," Paul told moderator King. "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 -- don't see that in the Constitution anyplace."
Romney focused some attention on Santorum for his support for then-Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched from a Republican to a Democrat. Romney said Santorum is essentially to blame for the passage of "Obamacare," the president's health care reform law, because he supported Specter.
But Santorum struck back. He said he backed Specter because Specter chaired the Judiciary Committee and ultimately helped confirm the appointments of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Romney called that explanation "torturous."
"Just about as torturous as six years later blaming me for Obamacare," Santorum quipped.