Carlos Osorio, Associated Press
MILFORD, Mich. — One day after a feisty debate, Mitt Romney criticized Republican rival Rick Santorum and courted tea party voters Thursday in a pair of primary states separated by nearly 2,000 miles.
"I appreciate the work you're doing. I appreciate your willingness to get out of your homes," he told an audience of tea party members in suburban Detroit, an appearance designed to let him reach out to a part of the electorate that tends to favor his campaign rivals over him.
Romney drew applause when he attacked President Barack Obama as uninformed about the workings of the American economy and called him "a man comfortable living with trillion-dollar deficits."
But he largely sidestepped when asked how he could be able to counter Obama in a debate in the fall campaign if the president brought up similarities between the health care law Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts and the health care overhaul passed by Congress that Republican contenders have vowed to repeal.
That was an evident reference to a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage — at the heart of both laws — but Romney's answer omitted that topic. Instead, he said, "The first thing I'd say to him is, 'You say you copied (the Massachusetts law), how come you didn't give me a call? I'd have told you what worked what did not work.'"
He added that the federal law was too expensive, raised taxes and cut $500 billion from Medicare over a decade.
Romney threw a glancing blow at Santorum, recalling that the former Pennsylvania senator had said in a debate in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday night that he had voted for President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law even though he didn't like it.
"He said, 'You know, you've got to take it for the team now and then.' Well, my team is the people of the United States of America."
That was Romney's message earlier in the day in Arizona, as he sought to upend Santorum's image as a principled defender of conservative ideals Thursday by describing him as just another give-and-take politician.
Michigan and Arizona both hold primaries on Feb. 28. Romney is heavily favored to win Arizona and claim all 29 delegates at stake, but Santorum is making an unexpectedly strong bid for an upset in the second contest, where 30 delegates are on the line.
Aides to Romney say Santorum opened himself to the attacks with a somewhat anguished explanation of his reluctant vote for the Bush-era school program in Wednesday's televised debate. Romney hoped to stop his chief rival's momentum on a day when Santorum was quietly raising money.
But Obama wasn't helping. His allies aired anti-Romney ads in Michigan while the president campaigned in Florida, a crucial swing state that GOP candidates can't afford to re-visit until their nominee is settled.
A Romney setback in either Michigan's primary or Arizona's on Tuesday would be embarrassing, or worse. His campaign seemed grateful for Santorum's unsteady showing in what may have been the GOP campaign's last big debate.
"It was against the principles I believed in," Santorum said of the Bush education law during the debate. "But, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team."
Santorum also struggled in the debate to explain his congressional votes for earmarked spending and for a bill that included money for Planned Parenthood despite his "personal moral objection" to the organization, which provides abortions for low-income women.
"I don't know that I've ever seen a politician explain in so many ways why he voted against his principles," Romney said Thursday at an Associated Builders and Contractors meeting in Phoenix.
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