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Romney and Santorum battle for tea party votes in Michigan

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney tried to undermine each other's conservative bona fides Saturday in a bid to rally new supporters ahead of a crucial primary for the two leading Republican presidential candidates.

With their fortunes shifting three days before the high-stakes Michigan primary, the candidates leveled caustic, personal attacks against each other in dueling speeches before more than 1,000 tea party activists.

Santorum accused the former Massachusetts governor of being a phony conservative whose record would leave him vulnerable as the GOP standard-bearer.

"Disqualified, disqualified, disqualified," Santorum thundered as he ticked off parts of Romney's record, including health care, that he said would make it impossible for Romney to draw a clear contrast with President Obama in the general election.

"Why would we do that?" Santorum, whose lead in polls in Michigan and nationally has evaporated, asked at the Americans for Prosperity forum. "Why would we nominate someone who is uniquely unqualified to take on the big issues of the day in this election about government control of your life?"

Romney did not pull any punches when he took to the same stage about an hour later. He said the former senator from Pennsylvania had been corrupted by Washington's insider culture and cited a slew of instances in which his opponent had violated his own principles to "take one for the team," repeating a phrase Santorum used to defend himself in last week's debate.

Romney questioned Santorum's endorsement of a fellow Pennsylvanian, Arlen Specter, over more conservative candidates in the 1996 Republican presidential race.

"There were other conservatives running, like Bob Dole, but he didn't support them," Romney said. "He supported the pro-choice candidate, Arlen Specter. This taking one for the team, that's business as usual in Washington. We have to have principled, conservative leadership, and I have demonstrated that through my life."

Santorum received a more enthusiastic response from the audience, underscoring Romney's continued difficulty in winning over the most conservative voters. But by hammering Romney with such sharp rhetoric -- on taxes, climate change, fiscal policy and health care -- he seemed to convey concern about Romney's momentum.

The candidates were battling for the upper hand ahead of the Michigan primary, which could again reset the tumultuous nominating contest. For Romney, a defeat in his native state would be his most devastating setback yet, while a loss for Santorum could blunt his momentum heading into "Super Tuesday" on March 6, the most consequential voting day of the primary campaign so far.

Santorum was riding a wave of momentum from a trio of victories this month, but Romney, on the strength of his debate performance and a barrage of television ads that helped divert attention from his problems to Santorum's record, has erased Santorum's lead.

A Gallup tracking poll released Saturday showed Santorum slipping since last week into a virtual tie nationwide, with Santorum at 31 percent and Romney at 30 percent. Recent polls in Michigan show a dead heat, while Romney is leading in Arizona, which also holds its primary Tuesday.