Romney questions ‘which team’ Santorum played for in Senate

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PHOENIX — Fresh from a Republican presidential debate that finally put him on offense, Mitt Romney on Thursday questioned chief rival Rick Santorum’s defense of his own past votes, saying it wasn’t always clear “which team” the former senator was working for when he was in Congress.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum are the leading candidates headed into Tuesday’s major primaries in Arizona and Michigan, which will go a long way toward determining whether Mr. Romney can recover from a rough February.

The two men’s fight for primacy dominated Wednesday’s debate and spilled over into Thursday, when the former Massachusetts governor attacked Mr. Santorum’s explanation that some of his Senate votes sometimes had the Pennsylvanian “take one for the team” and vote against his own principles.

“I wondered which team he was taking it for,” Mr. Romney said, addressing a building-trade group in Arizona before heading to Michigan later Thursday. “My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington.”

Mr. Santorum, who was booed occasionally during the Wednesday debate, is seeking a victory in either Arizona or Michigan next week to keep the momentum he earned earlier this month when he won the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses, as well as Missouri’s nonbinding primary.

Under intense scrutiny from his fellow candidates — Rep. Ron Paul of Texas even called him “a fake” — Mr. Santorum said he had to take votes during his time in Congress that he now regrets, including on spending bills, debt-limit increases and President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education initiative.

“I have to admit I voted for that; it was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake,” Mr. Santorum said Wednesday in explaining why he voted for the education bill.

Mr. Romney’s attack on Mr. Santorum is a case of turnabout. For most of the campaign, it has been the former governor who has been on the defensive, explaining his support for Massachusetts’ individual mandate to buy health insurance but his opposition to President Obama’s mandate, and arguing that he has transformed from pro-choice to pro-life over the past two decades.

Still, Mr. Romney came under attack from immigrant rights groups for saying Arizona should be “a model” for how to tackle illegal immigration. The state is engaged in a bruising legal fight over that law, which grants police the power to question the legal status of those they encounter as part of their duties.

The remark gained broad attention in Spanish-language press Thursday, including the stories from Univision and from CNN en Espanol, whose parent company, CNN, broadcast Wednesday’s debate.

Mr. Santorum had no public events Thursday as he laid plans for the next dozen days, which will take the campaign up through Super Tuesday. But he did carve out time to appear on Glenn Beck’s pay website, GBTV.com, where he defended his decisions to “take one for the team” in his earlier votes.

Asked by Mr. Beck how voters can trust him not to compromise principles in the future, Mr. Santorum said being in the White House is a different situation.

“I’ll be the team leader, not a team member,” he said. “When you’re responsible for leading the team, as the president was — I think you’re pretty clear, you look at the agenda I put forward.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is campaigning in Washington ahead of that state’s caucuses in 10 days, while Mr. Paul took a break from campaigning.

Meanwhile in Washington, U.S. Budget Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group, released a review finding that Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich have proposed tax and budget plans that would deepen the country’s deficits dramatically, while Mr. Romney’s plan would be about in line with current projections.

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