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Front-runners bruised in latest Republican debate

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image Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, left, makes a point as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, center, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listen during a Republican presidential debate

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Front-running Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney returned to campaigning yesterday, both of them bruised from a fierce and often personal debate confrontation — perhaps the last such forum in the battle for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and multimillionaire venture capitalist, hammered Santorum's record when he was a Pennsylvania senator. Santorum, the ultraconservative who has become the latest in the Republican field to challenge Romney's tenuous hold on the lead, counter-punched vigorously, questioning Romney's conservative credentials.

Wednesday night's debate set up a new intense round of state-by-state voting, beginning Tuesday in Arizona and in Romney's home state of Michigan. Santorum — who is fiercely anti-abortion and has spoken against contraception, women in the workplace and gay sexual relations — has pulled even with or surpassed Romney in recent national polling.

Obama has been vulnerable because of the slow economic recovery from the Great Recession, but Romney has failed to attract support among conservative Republicans who distrust him because of his once-moderate positions on issues like abortion, gay rights and health care reform.

Particularly troubling for Romney and the Republican establishment that supports him is Santorum's climb to the top in Michigan surveys. Romney's father was governor in Michigan, and the candidate grew up in the state that is known as the home to U.S. automobile manufacturing.

Michigan is now a must-win for Romney, who won the state when he ran but failed to win the Republican nomination in 2008. A loss there could permanently knock him from his presumed front-runner perch and would provide Santorum essential momentum the 10 state contests that are held March 6, a group of primaries known as Super Tuesday.

Polls of Michigan voters show Obama with huge leads over both Romney and Santorum, a reflection of the president's decision to invest billions of federal dollars to save General Motors and Chrysler Corp., the troubled auto makers that were on the verge of collapse in the near financial meltdown in the final months of the George W. Bush presidency.

The automakers have since emerged from managed bankruptcy, reorganized, paid back much of the government investment and are recording record profits. Both Romney and Santorum opposed Obama's critical help to the auto industry, with Romney writing an opinion piece at the time that called for the government to let the industry go under.

In Wednesday's debate, Santorum was the aggressor on federal bailouts. He said that unlike Romney, he took a consistent stand in also opposing federal bailouts for big financial institutions after the economy collapsed.

Santorum, though, was called a "fake" conservative by Texas Rep. Ron Paul. He noted Santorum voted for federal programs that he now says he wants to repeal. Santorum was booed by the audience for his explanation: "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."

Santorum also was booed when explaining how he voted for a huge spending bill with funding for Planned Parenthood — a group that provides family planning, women's health care and abortions. He said he voted yes because it was the only legislative vehicle to fund other programs.

The fourth candidate, former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich, did not have the fiery debate performance that has helped his standing in the polls in the past.

On foreign affairs, all four Republicans attacked Obama for his handling of Iran and fears of its nuclear weapons ambitions. None advocated providing arms to the rebels trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

AP

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