MESA, Ariz. — Primed for a fight, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum swapped accusations about spending and taxes Wednesday night in the 20th and possibly final debate of the roller-coaster race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul chimed in, saying with a smile that Santorum was a fake conservative who had voted for programs that he now says he wants to repeal.
With primaries in Arizona and Michigan six days distant, Romney said Santorum voted five times while in Congress to raise the government's ability to borrow, supported retention of a law that favors construction unions and supported increased spending for Planned Parenthood. He said federal spending rose 78 percent overall while the former Pennsylvania senator was in Congress.
Santorum retorted that government spending declined as a percentage of the economy when he was in the Senate, and he noted that when Romney was asked last year if he would support a then-pending debt-limit increase, "he said yes."
There was a clash over federal spending earmarks, as well, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to intervene as if serving as a referee instead of a debate participant.
He said he supported the earmarks that Romney had sought for the Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, then accused Romney of observing a double standard by running television ads attacking Santorum for having voted for different earmarks.
He said it was silly for Romney to take the position that "what you got was right and what he got was wrong."