MESA, Ariz. -- With Rick Santorum as the campaign's newest lightning rod, the Republican presidential candidates traded sharp criticisms Wednesday on earmarks, bailouts and the government's role in health care and contraception.
The series of lively exchanges came in their final debate before a string of contests that could reshape their nomination battle.
The campaign's front-runners, Mr. Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, tried to put one another on the defensive on health care and spending issues. The former Pennsylvania senator renewed his criticism of the health care law Mr. Romney signed in Massachusetts, while Mr. Romney joined Texas Rep. Ron Paul in questioning Mr. Santorum's support for appropriations bills that included aid to Planned Parenthood.
"The whole reason this [health care] issue is alive is because your law was a model for Obamacare," Mr. Santorum said, echoing an assertion by another rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, that the law would inevitably lead to government coercion.
Mr. Romney also tried to put Mr. Santorum on the defensive for having supported his Pennsylvania colleague, then-Sen. Arlen Specter, in the latter's 2004 primary victory against Pat Toomey. The re-elected Mr. Specter proved to be a decisive vote for the Obama administration's health care plan in 2010, when Mr. Specter later lost his seat to Mr. Toomey. Mr. Romney suggested that Mr. Specter's crucial role would not have been possible if Mr. Santorum had not supported him in the close 2004 race.
"So don't look at me; look in the mirror," Mr. Romney said.
In the 20th debate of their tumultuous campaign, the four remaining contenders joined in assailing President Barack Obama, focusing on his administration's since-modified effort to require some religious institutions to include contraception among the insured benefits under the new federal health care law.
"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," Mr. Romney said.
Returning to his practiced debate tactic of making the media his foil, Mr. Gingrich contended that the media showed a double standard in reporting on the candidates' positions on contraception and in failing to present what he characterized as the president's extreme position.
"But I just want to point out ... in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. OK? So let's be clear here," Mr. Gingrich said. "If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans."
In response to a question, Mr. Santorum defended an earlier statement that contraception was a mistake for individuals and society as a whole.
Pointing to rising rates of childbirth outside of marriage, he said, "And someone has got to go out there -- I will -- and talk about the things. And you know what? Here's the difference:
"The left gets all upset. 'Oh, look at him talking about these things.' You know, here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this," he continued. "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it."
Mr. Paul said it was a mistake to focus on contraception rather than morality.
"... [A]long the line of the pills creating immorality, I don't see it that way," he said. "I think the immorality creates the problem of wanting to use the pills. So you don't blame the pills. I think it's sort of like the argument -- conservatives use the argument all the time about guns. Guns don't kill; criminals kill."
Turning to an issue of particular concern to tea party voters, Mr. Romney renewed his assault against Mr. Santorum for having voted for earmarks in appropriations bills.
Mr. Santorum said that for most of his congressional career there was a place for earmarks, but that the process had become mired in abuses. He cited the V-22 Osprey -- a tilt-wing aircraft for the Marines that is produced in southeastern Pennsylvania -- as an appropriate use of tax dollars that would not have survived without the earmark process.
Mr. Santorum contended that Mr. Romney was inconsistent in his criticism, pointing out that Mr. Romney had sought funds provided through earmarks both as governor of Massachusetts and in his role as leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Mr. Gingrich defended Mr. Romney's Olympics requests but not his ads attacking Mr. Santorum on earmarks.
"I think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got," he said. "I just think it's, kind of, silly for you to then turn around and run an ad attacking somebody else for getting what you got and then claiming what you got wasn't what they got because what you got was right and what they got was wrong."
Mr. Paul, however, joined in the assault on the Santorum earmark record as well as in ads run by his campaign, calling Mr. Santorum "a fake."
Asked by CNN moderator John King why he was making that accusation, Mr. Paul said, "Because he's a fake."
The candidates also returned to their disagreements on auto bailouts, a vital issue particularly in Michigan, one of the two states voting next Tuesday. Arizona is the other state.
Mr. Santorum renewed his criticism of Mr. Romney for having supported TARP, the Bush administration's financial rescue, while suggesting that General Motors Corp. and Chrysler should have been forced to go through a normal bankruptcy.
Mr. Romney said that he had supported a managed bankruptcy that have preserved the auto firms without what he described as unwarranted aid to unions.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published February 23, 2012 5:00 AM