WASHINGTON — It was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's turn to play the part of equal-opportunity aggressor during Tuesday's Republican presidential campaign debate.
Desperate for traction, the former Pennsylvania senator spent a chunk of the face-off in Las Vegas hounding Mitt Romney for the health care bill he signed while governor of Massachusetts and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his support of the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
And while Romney and Perry have clashed for weeks in what at times has seemed to be a two-man race, Santorum aggressively argued that neither were authentic conservatives worthy of the GOP nomination.
"I didn't run as a Democrat in Texas when it was popular," Santorum said, referring to Perry's past as a Democrat before being elected as governor.
"I ran in 1994, the same year Mitt did in Massachusetts," Santorum continued, referring to Romney's losing U.S. Senate race against Ted Kennedy. "He ran as a liberal."
With scant showing in polls and not much money, Santorum tried to claw his way into relevancy as rivals before him have done.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain both saw their standing in polls rise after strong debate performances.
This was Santorum's last opportunity for more than a month to stand out before a national television audience — and appear relevant — alongside his better-known and better-funded rivals. The next debate isn't until December.
So, Santorum took both Perry and Romney to task at every opportunity as he sought to leave the impression, with only 10 weeks until Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, that voters should consider him a serious contender.
Santorum hit Romney hard for signing health care legislation in Massachusetts in 2006 that has some common elements with the federal law signed by Democratic President Barack Obama last year.
"Governor Romney, you just don't have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare," Santorum said, looking sternly at Romney, and repeating, "You don't" while Romney tried to respond.
Santorum noted as chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2008, Perry co-authored an op-ed piece with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, urging Congress to pass a $400-billion Wall Street bailout that has become a rallying point for conservatives critical of government intervention.Comment on this story
"No, you wrote a letter on the day of the vote. You wrote a letter on the day of the vote," Santorum said, adding "Yes, governor, you did," when Perry protested.
Santorum has been campaigning aggressively in early voting Iowa, where he gets high marks from conservative activists but registers little support in public polls.
He has impressed social conservatives. But Santorum has not had the kind of fundraising breakthrough or national poll bump that has made Cain, Perry and Bachmann national story lines — at least for a while.