Sisters Pat Backes, Betty Pfeifer and Sharon Babel, from left, follow the… (Scott Strazzante, Chicago…)
Reporting from Mesa, Ariz. — Days before a pair of crucial primaries, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum clashed Wednesday night in a testy debate that magnified small differences and underscored the big stakes in their neck-and-neck presidential fight.
The former Massachusetts governor was aggressive from the start, challenging Santorum's claims of fiscal prudence. Romney criticized Santorum for voting to raise the debt ceiling five times and repeatedly seeking earmarks — money that lawmakers steer to specific home-state projects.
The former Pennsylvania senator defended the practice by saying that Congress has an important oversight role in shaping the federal budget. "Sometimes the president, the administration, doesn't get it right," Santorum said.
Romney, calling for a ban on earmarks, pounced with a reference to his stewardship of the troubled 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. "While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the 'bridge to nowhere,' " he said, referring to the proposed crossing to a small Alaska island that became a symbol of government profligacy.
"You're entitled to your opinions," Santorum snapped. "You're not entitled to misrepresent the facts, and you're misrepresenting the facts. You don't know what you're talking about."
The exchange typified the evening. It was prickly, personal and seemed to reflect an eagerness to engage — even when the issues were esoteric and the other candidates, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were left to chime in from the sidelines.
Romney, the front-runner throughout most of the contest, was seeking to halt Santorum's momentum ahead of Tuesday's votes in Arizona and Michigan and, one week later, Super Tuesday, when more than a third of the delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination will be at stake.
One of the more contentious and convoluted exchanges involved religious freedom and the sweeping healthcare law passed under President Obama.
The four candidates were unanimous in condemning the administration's decision, since amended, to require religious employers to provide contraception in their employee insurance plans. Santorum went a step further, saying the healthcare program implemented under Romney in Massachusetts served as the model for Obama's plan — including the contraception provision that Romney and others decried.
"The whole reason this issue is alive is 'Romneycare,' " Santorum said.
Romney responded by noting that Santorum had endorsed him when he ran for president in 2008, after passage of the Massachusetts law, and insisted the only reason Obama's law passed was the vote of former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, whom Santorum had backed for reelection.
"So don't look at me," Romney taunted. "Look in the mirror."
Specter, a moderate Republican who switched parties and became a Democrat under Obama, has long been a pariah to many conservatives. Santorum backed him in a pitched 2004 campaign against then-Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, the candidate favored by many on the right.
Santorum responded by saying he supported Specter because he had promised, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to support conservative appointees to the Supreme Court. "I did the right thing for our country," he said.
Santorum largely steered clear of the provocative statements that dominated his week. Rather than declaring again that that government's role in public education is "anachronistic," he reiterated that he would like to see federal and state power over education returned to the local level.
"Look, I'm a home-schooling father of seven," he said, adding, "I know the importance of parental control of education; I know the importance of local control of education."
At one point, Santorum drew a sharp rejoinder when he defended his vote for No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's signature education initiative, even though, he said, "it was against the principles I believed in."
"Sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader," Santorum said.
"He calls this a team sport," Paul shot back. "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."
The audience booed when the debate turned to the issue of contraception, a question raised by a viewer who emailed CNN's website and asked which of the candidates believed in birth control. No one answered directly.
Santorum spoke of the rising incidence of out-of-wedlock births and the difficult straits faced by children born to single mothers. "We hear this all time — 'So you cut spending, limit the government, everything will be fine.' No, everything's not going to be fine," Santorum said. "There are bigger problems at stake in America."
Paul, an obstetrician, argued that contraception was not to blame.
"The pill is there and, you know … contributes, maybe," he said, "But the pills can't be blamed for the immorality of our society."