Surging Republican hopeful Rick Santorum came under sustained fire from US presidential rivals, including struggling frontrunner Mitt Romney, in a fierce debate ahead of key upcoming polls.
In their last televised face-off before two primary elections next week in Arizona and Michigan — and before so-called “Super Tuesday” on March 6 — the two men clashed repeatedly, notably on fiscal issues, religion and immigration.
“You’re misrepresenting the facts. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Santorum told Romney during the two-hour debate on Wednesday night in Arizona, one of two states holding Republican primaries on Tuesday.
Romney, who is battling to retain his frontrunner status against the Christian conservative, lambasted Santorum’s voting record during his time as a US senator from Pennsylvania.
“While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’” Romney said of his own rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and Santorum’s backing for a doomed Alaskan infrastructure project.
On religion, Santorum jabbed his finger repeatedly as he accused Romney of facilitating access to insurance-funded contraception when he was governor of Massachusetts — but Romney turned the tables.
“Don’t look at me, take a look in the mirror,” Romney told Santorum, seated next to him, questioning his voting record on birth control — in theory defined by his Catholic faith — in the Senate.
One of the bluntest comments of the night came from Texas Representative Ron Paul, who was asked why he had endorsed an advertisement accusing Santorum of being a fake.
“Because he’s a fake,” said Paul, prompting Santorum — who was booed at least once when explaining past against-principle Senate votes — to shake his head and hold out his hand, saying: “I’m real, I’m real, I’m real.”
Santorum soared from a -distant third into pole position after a trio of wins earlier this month in the state-by-state voting contest to decide who takes on US President Barack Obama in November’s general election.
Romney, who seemed to have a lock on the Republican nomination after trouncing his rivals in Florida and Nevada, is desperate to stop the rot and has launched a major advertising blitz before next week’s votes.
Up for grabs on Tuesday are Michigan, where Romney was born and his father was governor, and Arizona, another supposed Romney stronghold where a significant proportion of the electorate shares his Mormon faith.
A Santorum win in either would be a huge blow to Romney going into “Super Tuesday” on March 6, when 10 states vote simultaneously in a potentially decisive night for the Republican race.
A Quinnipiac University poll out on Wednesday found Santorum leading Romney 35 percent to 26 percent among nationwide Republicans, followed by former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 14 percent and Texas congressman Ron Paul at 11 percent.
However, the poll found that Obama would defeat Santorum in a general election, while an Obama-Romney face-off would be too close to call, adding fuel to Republican concerns about Santorum’s electability in a general election.
The Republican establishment fears that Santorum, a fierce opponent of gay marriage and abortion, could be a liability in a head-to-head contest with Obama as his moralizing could turn off independent voters.