Santorum on hot seat in what could be final Republican debate

WASHINGTON — There was no clear winner, no knockout punches, and no damaging gaffes on Wednesday night in the latest Republican presidential debate — possibly the final such showdown of a topsy turvy primary season that has seen front-runners and momentum ebb and flow on an almost daily basis.

WASHINGTON — There was no clear winner, no knockout punches, and no damaging gaffes on Wednesday night in the latest Republican presidential debate — possibly the final such showdown of a topsy turvy primary season that has seen front-runners and momentum ebb and flow on an almost daily basis.

Only four men remained standing in the 20th debate of the race, and the stakes were high in advance of state primaries being held in the delegate-rich states of Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday.

The latest candidate atop national polls, Rick Santorum, was on the hot seat in Mesa, Ariz., often appearing peeved as he fended off attacks from Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, in particular. The former Massachusetts governor and the libertarian congressman have reportedly formed a behind-the-scenes alliance.

“Because he’s a fake,” Paul answered cheerfully when asked by the debate’s moderator, CNN’s John King, why his campaign released an ad in Michigan this week calling Santorum a fake conservative.

Paul assailed Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, for portraying himself as a fiscal conservative when, while in Congress, he voted to raise the debt ceiling five times.

He also repeatedly maligned Santorum for voting in favour of a federal education bill that he has since decried, accusing him of “losing credibility.”

Santorum, meantime, tried to take aim at Romney. The staunch social conservative has been polling ahead of his rival in Michigan, Romney’s home state, for weeks, although recent polls suggest the race was significantly tightening.

He belittled Romney’s tax plan, released earlier in the day, for “adopting the Occupy Wall Street rhetoric.”

On the campaign trail in Chandler, Ariz., Romney proposed a 20 per cent cut in marginal tax rates, assuring the crowd at a Christian school that his proposals would not benefit “the one per cent.”

But much of the debate’s subject matter, on issues largely addressed in detail 19 times previously, seemed of interest only to the most ardent political insiders.

One of the most heated exchanges, for example, was a complex argument among the candidates about so-called earmarks, federal funds secured by legislators for their own pet projects back home. All four men have benefited from federal funds over the course of their careers yet accused each other of being pro-earmark, rendering the argument relatively pointless.

It had been almost a month since the last Republican presidential debate, and once again the race for the party’s nomination was vastly different than it was when Romney efficiently put the boots to his biggest threat, Newt Gingrich, during a Florida faceoff.

Now Romney’s coming off three big defeats at the hands of Santorum after decisively winning Florida. Pundits predict if Romney doesn’t win Michigan next week, he can’t take the nomination.

Santorum, however, had served up a feast of fodder to his foes since he won nominating contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado two weeks ago.

In recent days, he’s accused President Barack Obama of practising a “phoney theology” that isn’t based on the Bible. He’s suggested the president’s health-care legislation aims to kill the disabled in the womb. He’s come out against pre-natal testing, saying it only leads to abortions. He’s opposed women serving in combat roles for the U.S. military.

He’s also on the record as saying birth control poses a threat to the nation, that sex is only meant for the purpose of procreation, and that “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.”

On Wednesday, he kept up his faith-based rhetoric in a campaign appearance at the Sabbar Shrine in Tucson.

“Essentially, we are going to have to hold together on some set of moral codes and principles,” he told a Tea Party crowd.

“And we’re seeing very evidently what the president’s moral codes and principles are about. We see a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America. We saw it with Obamacare and the implementation of Obamacare, where his values are going to be imposed on a church’s values.”

Santorum’s cultural warrior stances play well to the Republican’s far-right fringes. But many in the Republican establishment believe they would doom him in a general election, since the vast majority of American voters are far removed from those positions.

And yet when the candidates were asked their position on birth control by King — a query booed by the audience — no one attacked Santorum or defended a woman’s right to accessible contraceptives.

Instead, the candidates accused Obama of attempting to stomp on religious freedoms with his health-care legislation.

Romney, Gingrich and Santorum also decried the fact that so many children in the U.S. are born out of wedlock.

But Santorum insisted: “Just because I am talking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released today showed Santorum has maintained his lead nationwide among likely Republican voters, besting Romney by nine percentage points. He had 35 per cent of support from Republican voters or Republican-leaning independents, compared with 26 per cent for Romney.

The poll suggested Santorum’s strongest support came from men and evangelical Christians.

A new NBC New/Marist poll, meantime, found Romney beating Santorum among women in Arizona by an almost two-to-one margin.

It’s one of the first polls to starkly illustrate Santorum’s woes with women as his controversial beliefs on issues they hold near and dear attract more attention now that he’s a front-runner.

Women made up 54 per cent of the electorate in the last presidential election, and are expected to make up the majority of voters this November, too.

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