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Romney reverts to form in savaging Santorum

With momentum shifting his way, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pushed Thursday for critical primary victories using the formula that has kept him in GOP contention in good times and bad: an outsider's posture enforced by unrelenting and overwhelming financial advantage.

Romney is blasting his chief rival, Rick Santorum, with a punishing ad drive in Michigan that mimics a similar, and successful, effort to demolish Newt Gingrich in last month's Florida primary. The latest Romney attacks center on Santorum's support for earmarked spending and portray the former Pennsylvania senator as a consummate Washington insider whose claim to be an unflinching, principled conservative doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Santorum inadvertently reinforced Romney's strategy in Wednesday night's debate when he failed to defend himself effectively on earmarks and admitted to having voted for programs he opposes, including federal funding for contraception.

The former Pennsylvania senator said he had mistakenly done the expedient thing -- siding with President George W. Bush, "the leader" of the Republican "team," on the controversial No Child Left Behind education law -- instead of voting his conscience.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas seized on the confession in a critique aimed directly at the anti-Washington creed of many conservative Republicans and followers of the tea party movement, Santorum's base in the primaries.

Romney said Thursday that Santorum's explanations for why he voted in opposition to his principles showed that he was a creature of Washington who sided with special interests rather than the American people. Romney was campaigning in Arizona, which votes Tuesday along with Michigan.

"I don't think I've ever seen a politician explain in so many ways why he voted against his principles," said the former Massachusetts governor, whose own shifts of position -- on abortion and other issues -- are among his main vulnerabilities as a candidate. "My team is the American people, not the insiders of Washington, and I'll fight for the people of America, not special interests."

The closing ad push by the Romney forces, overwhelmingly negative in tone, echoed his lines of argument in the debate: that Santorum was steeped in the distasteful habits of Washington, a defender of insider gamesmanship who veered from the conservative line to confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the federal appeals bench and voted in favor of Alaska's notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" and against the E-Verify system designed to curb illegal immigration.

"Is Rick Santorum ready to be president?" a male narrator asks in one ad, adopting a sinister tone. "He's never run a business. Never run a state."

Santorum's allies, meantime, were airing an ad critical of Romney's electoral prospects, and a group backing President Obama was attacking Romney's opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry.

Post-debate analysis portrayed Wednesday's nationally televised encounter as a victory for Romney and, perhaps more important, a missed opportunity for Santorum, who failed to generate a breakout performance at a key juncture in the GOP race.

A recent Arizona poll for NBC by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion showed Romney leading Santorum by 16 percentage points.

In Michigan, where Romney was born and reared, the latest round of polling shows a virtual dead heat, a shift from the previous week, when Santorum appeared to be leading Romney by as much as 10 points.

After the Arizona and Michigan primaries, there are contests in 14 states over the following week.