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In the spotlight

Politics | Rick Santorum spent most of Wednesday's GOP debate defending his record

Rick Santorum shook his head a lot during Wednesday night's Republican presidential primary debate in Arizona. That was his habitual response when his three GOP rivals pressed their attacks.

The former senator from Pennsylvania learned fast how hot the spotlight is when you are surging to the top of this volatile race.

In what at times felt like a tag team wrestling match, Ron Paul on Santorum's right and Mitt Romney on Santorum's left took turns trying to smack him down.

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"He's a fake," Paul said, referring to Santorum, who shook his head.

"While I was fighting to save the Olympics you were fighting to save the Bridge to Nowhere," Romney said, referring to Santorum's support for an infamously controversial earmark. Santorum shook his head.

At times even the audience seemed to be against him. The crowd often followed Santorum's explanations of his past actions with boos and jeers.

"This was a pretty favorable Romney crowd from what I could tell," Santorum said after the debate.

At one point, Newt Gingrich, who has had his own difficult time in the debate's center seat as a front-runner, leaned back in his chair and laughed while Romney and Santorum lectured each other about earmarks.

The spotlight on Santorum comes as he leads in some of the polls heading into next Tuesday's primaries in Arizona and Michigan. A win in one or both of those states, and the former senator can deliver a serious blow to Romney's efforts to declare himself the presumptive nominee.

But during Wednesday night's debate, Santorum spent so much time defending his own record that he had limited opportunities to go on his own attacks.

He had to explain why he endorsed Arlen Specter in the moderate's Senate reelection effort in Pennsylvania. Santorum admitted he erred when he voted for the No Child Left Behind education act.

"I will not make that mistake again," he pledged.

When Santorum defended his record by saying that he served a blue-leaning state as senator, he sounded similar to Romney when he talks about being governor of liberal Massachusetts.

Santorum's biggest headshake came when CNN debate moderator John King said the next question would deal with the candidates' views on contraception.

Not only did Santorum shake his head, the audience booed. They were likely frustrated at the mainstream media's insistence that the Republicans stance on social issues will be a weak point in a general election against Barack Obama.

The contraceptive question was aimed at Santorum, a Catholic, who is personally opposed to the practice. But in repeated questioning by the media during the primary season, Santorum has said that as president he would support a woman's right to have access to contraception.

But Gingrich was the first to tackle the question by taking on the media.

"There is a legitimate question about the power of the government to impose on religion activities which any religion opposes, that's legitimate," he said. "But I just want to point out: You did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. OK? So let's be clear here: If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama, who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion."

Eager to appeal to social conservatives, Romney jumped in.

"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama," he said, going after the president for trying to force religious organizations to include contraception in their insurance plans.

Santorum then had his best debate moment by using the contraception question to expound on his larger concerns about the family.

"What we're seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children," he said. "There are bigger problems at stake in America. Someone's going to go out there, I will, and talk about these things."

In addition to his pledge to keep touting his core convictions even in the face of media scrutiny, Santorum took the chance to get in a jab at big government philosophy.

"The left gets all upset. 'Oh, look at him talking about these things,'" he said. "You know, here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this. Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it. That's what they do. That's not what we do."


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