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At Arizona GOP debate, Romney fights for frontrunner status

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Romney and Santorum (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Mitt Romney fought for frontrunner status in front of a live national audience Wednesday night in the last debate before the crucial primaries on Feb. 28 in Michigan and Arizona.

In his opening statement at the CNN GOP debate, Romney said "I want to restore America's promise, and I'm going to do that --" prompting immediate applause from the audience in the Mesa Arts Center in Arizona. Instead of continuing, he stopped mid-sentence, adding: "That's good enough. As George Costanza would say, 'when they're applauding, stop.' Right?"

The former Massachusetts governor, who was born and raised in Michigan where his father served as governor, challenged former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in his first answer of the evening, stating that Santorum voted in Congress to fund Planned Parenthood, the Department of Education, voted to raise the debt ceiling "five times," and to maintain the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires prevailing wages to be paid for public works projects. "Senator, during your term in Congress, the years you've been there, the government's doubled in size," Romney said.

Santorum defended his record, especially on spending, noting his positive rankings from the American Conservative Union.

The back-and-forth between Santorum and Romney was a public display of the battle that has been playing out in campaign ads and stump speeches issued by each candidate in the preceding weeks.

In one heated exchange, Santorum charged that Romney's healthcare plan in Massachusetts was a model for Obamacare. Romney hit back at Santorum saying "the reason we have Obamacare is... that you supported the pro-choice Senator of Pennsylvania and he voted for Obamacare." Santorum endorsed Arlen Specter for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2004 against a more conservative Republican challenger-- Rep. Patrick J. Toomey. Specter in 2009 announced his decision to run as a Democrat in the 2010 election.

During Wednesday's debate, Romney was pressed to explain his opposition to the TARP auto bailout-- an issue of special importance to Michigan, home to the auto city of Detroit. All the candidates oppose the auto bailout, sticking with their fiscally conservative principles. It was an "unprecedented violation of U.S. bankruptcy law" that paid off the United Auto Workers union, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed.

During the discussion of the bailout, Santorum repeated his accusation that Romney is inconsistent because he supported the Wall Street bailout but not TARP. "I believe in markets, not just when they're convenient for me," Santorum said.

But Romney hit back, accusing Santorum of supporting a "bailout" of the airline industry post-9/11. But Santorum defended himself, saying the comparison isn't "fair" because it was the government that shut down the airline industry, and the government did not shut down the banks.

Next, the debate turned to contraception issues. In a question and answer series that provided the candidates one of the few opportunities to join together in agreement, Santorum defended his assertion that contraception is dangerous for women. Gingrich said in 2008 no members of the media asked Obama to defend why he voted for "legalizing infanticide."

And then Gingrich added, when talking about how the public health department was prepared to give a waiver on the morning after pill: "When you have the government as a central provider of services you inevitably move towards tyranny because the government has the power of force."

Romney piped in to add that the president has used the issue of contraception to challenge religious freedom, noting the recent fight over mandating that institutions connected to religious organizations provide contraception coverage even if the religious organization opposes it. (The White House moved to put the onus on health insurance companies, not institutions as an "accommodation" to those who opposed the mandate.") He added: "We need people to stand up for religious conscience and I did that...and will again as president."

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, during this discussion, made one of several attacks against Santorum, saying the federal government "shouldn't be spending money on abstinence." He earlier called Santorum a "fake," playing off an attack ad he's running against Santorum saying his fiscally conservative persona is fake.

At one point, moderator John King read a question that asked each candidate to use one word and only one word to describe themselves. Paul chose "consistent," Santorum went with "courage," Romney decided on "resolute" and Gingrich picked the word that drew the most laughs: "cheerful."

In one testy exchange, when Romney was pushed by King to answer a question, Romney responded, "You get to ask the questions you want and I get to give the answers I want." Romney said he believes he has the "passion, commitment and skill to turn America around."

Gingrich spent much of the evening aiming his attacks at President Obama for his union ties, his inability to solve the country's economic problems and energy issues and for an unsatisfactory foreign policy. At one point, Gingrich remarked that this was a sober time and we were living with "the most dangerous president on national security grounds in American history."

During an exchange on Iran and how to respond if that country is thought to have nuclear weapons, Gingrich said if a "madman" is believed to be about to "obtain nuclear weapons," you have a "moral obligation" to limit their capacity for nuclear weapons. He later added: "As long as you're America's enemy, you're safe, The only thing you have to worry about is if you are an American ally.

Paul, who is anti-war, stood apart from the Republican field by once again repeating his belief that Iran does not have that capacity--something for which he's been attacked by fellow Republicans throughout this race.

Recent polls show Santorum threatening to overtake Romney's lead in Michigan and Romney flagging in Arizona as Santorum continues to rise following his three-state win Feb. 7.

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Don't miss our live coverage of the CNN Republican debate in Arizona.

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