- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2012

MESA, Ariz. — The Republican presidential field became a circular firing squad Wednesday night, with the four major candidates accusing each other of failing to live up to conservative principles — with rising candidate Rick Santorum taking the brunt of attacks.

In a debate before a boisterous Arizona audience, most of the candidates backed the state’s strict approach to illegal immigration — Mitt Romney went so far as to call it “a model” — and accused President Obama of pushing too far in requiring religiously affiliated institutions, such as Catholic colleges and hospitals, to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.

But with no clear front-runner in the GOP field, the candidates spent a large part of their time combing over each other’s records, especially Mr. Santorum‘s.

“He’s a fake,” said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, pointing to Mr. Santorum’s repeated votes for spending bills and increased debt during his 16 years in Congress. Mr. Romney piled on, saying that Mr. Santorum also supported earmarks, such as for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska.

“I think we all have had votes that I look back on, I wish I wouldn’t have voted [for],” Mr. Santorum explained, but argued the rest of the field was just as tainted by issues such as earmarks, which Mr. Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both engaged in, and which Mr. Romney requested during his term as Massachusetts governor and as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

Health care also returned to center stage as Mr. Romney blamed Mr. Santorum for supporting then-Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 election over a conservative Republican primary challenger. Mr. Specter would later switch from Republican to Democrat and be one of the 60 votes that pushed Democrats’ health care law through the Senate.

“If you had not supported him, if we had said no to Arlen Specter, we would not have ‘Obamacare.’ So don’t look at me, take a look in the mirror,” Mr. Romney said.

Mr. Santorum said his support for Mr. Specter — who while still a Republican became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — led to the successful confirmations of dozens of conservative judges, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr.

“I did the right thing for our country,” Mr. Santorum said.

The debate was aired live on CNN, and marks the last one before Arizona and Michigan Republicans go to the polls on Tuesday, and nearly a dozen other primaries and caucuses take place the week after that on Super Tuesday on March 6.

In one of the few moments of unity, most of the field backed Arizona’s approach to immigration and said they would drop the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s enforcement policy.

And at another point, the entire field — and much of the audience — objected when host John King asked the candidates about their personal stance on contraception.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once again jumped at the chance to be referee, blasting Mr. King and his colleagues in the press for focusing on Republicans when he said there was plenty of room to question President Obama in 2008 — but nobody in the press did.

“You did not once in the 2008 campaign — not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide,” said Mr. Gingrich, pointing to a vote in the Illinois Legislature where Mr. Obama opposed a bill that would have required doctors to try to save babies born alive in the middle of botched abortions.

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