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Romney, Santorum exchange fiery accusations; With 2 primaries near, health care, earmarks, bailouts prominent in what may be last debate

Primed for a showdown, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum traded fiery accusations about health care, spending earmarks and federal bailouts Wednesday night in the 20th and possibly final debate of the roller-coaster race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Santorum, surging in the race, also took his lumps from the audience, which booed when he said he had voted several years ago for the No Child Left Behind education bill, even though he had opposed it.

"Look, politics is a team sport, folks," he said of the measure backed by Republican President George W. Bush and other GOP lawmakers.

With pivotal primaries in Arizona and Michigan just six days distant -- and 10 more contests a week later -- Romney and Santorum battled more aggressively than in past debates, sometimes talking over each other's answers.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul chimed in from the side, saying with a smile that Santorum was a fake conservative who had voted for programs that he now says he wants to repeal. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich acted almost as a referee at times.

On foreign affairs, all four Republicans attacked President Obama for his handling of Iran and its nuclear program, but none of the contenders advocated providing arms to the rebels trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The most animated clash of the evening focused on health care.

Santorum said that Romney had used government money to "fund a federal takeover of health care in Massachusetts," a reference to the state law that was enacted during Romney's term as governor. The law includes a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage that is similar to the one in Obama's landmark federal law that Romney and other Republicans have vowed to repeal.

In rebuttal, Romney said Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, actually bore responsibility for passage of the health care law that Obama won from a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2010, even though he wasn't in office at the time. Romney said that in a primary battle in 2004, Santorum had supported then-GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who later switched parties and voted for the law Obama wanted.

"He voted for Obamacare. If you had not supported him, if we had said no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obamacare," Romney contended.

CNN anchor John King asked the candidates to address their views of contraception, a subject that has risen as a point of contention in the GOP field. The audience booed, and the candidates tried to dodge discussion of views that could prove problematic come the general election.

Gingrich said he prefers to discuss Obama's support for "infanticide," and Romney said Obama is attacking "religious tolerance." Paul, a physician, said immorality leads to the need for contraception, not the other way around. And Santorum said he opposes contraception and said the nation needs stronger families, not birth control.

Santorum was the aggressor on bailouts.

While all four of the Republicans on the debate stage opposed the federal bailout of the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, Santorum said he had voted against other government-funded rescue efforts.

"With respect to Gov. Romney that was not the case, he supported the folks on Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street -- was all for it -- and when it came to the autoworkers and the folks in Detroit, he said no. That, to me, is not a principled, consistent position," he said.

The debate had a different look from the 19 that preceded it. Instead of standing behind lecterns, the four rivals sat in chairs lined up side by side. Romney, Santorum and Paul recently announced they would not participate in another four-way appearance that had been scheduled in Atlanta, raising the possibility that the 20th debate might have been the last.

Romney is campaigning confidently in Arizona, but he faces an unexpectedly strong challenge in his home state of Michigan, where Santorum is hoping to spring an upset.

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 backed increased spending for Planned Parenthood. He said federal spending had risen by 78 percent overall while Santorum 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 whether he would support a then-pending debt-limit increase, "he said yes."

There was a clash over federal spending earmarks, as well, and 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, but then he accused Romney of observing a double standard by running TV ads attacking Santorum for backing different earmarks.

He said that it was silly for Romney to take the position that "what you got was right, and what he got was wrong."

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