As Michigan lead slips, Santorum pivots to focus on Romney

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally at the El-Zaribah Shrine Auditorium, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona. AP Photo/Eric Gay

AP Photo/Eric Gay

DETROIT, Mich. - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is taking a break from his unrelenting focus on President Obama tonight to launch a verbal assault on GOP rival Mitt Romney in the hopes of regaining the lead in this important primary state.

Santorum is set to deliver what his campaign is billing as a "100 Days Economic Freedom Agenda" Friday night in Lincoln Park, Mich. But advanced copies of excerpts circulated by the campaign show an extensive critique of Romney's record designed to paint the former Massachusetts governor as a liberal.

"Governor Romney described himself as resolute on that debate stage," says the text. "There's no question that he's resolute - trouble is, he's resolutely liberal."

Santorum cites as examples Romney's health care plan as governor ("government run health care"), his support for the financial industry bailout, his appointment of "liberal activist judges" to the state Supreme Court, and his signing of marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples.

The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania will also seek to turn his own weak debate moment on Wednesday - when he said he voted for the President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law against his principles because he was a "team player" - into an attack on Romney. "Mitt Romney has criticized me for taking one for the Republican team and we all know why, because Mitt Romney's teammates are all Democrats," according to the text.

Romney's campaign was quick to respond. "Rick Santorum is a Washington insider who is lashing out at Mitt Romney because he had a terrible debate performance," said a memo circulated by Romney press aide Gail Gitcho minutes after Santorum's remarks were released. "Back in 2008, Senator Santorum endorsed Mitt Romney for president because of Mitt's 'conservative' record. Now, Rick's changed his tune. This sounds like another case of Rick Santorum abandoning his principles for his own political advantage."

Santorum was asked about the endorsement a few hours later during a Fox News Channel interview. "You know what? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," he said. "I supported Mitt Romney when it was down to Romney and [Ariz. Sen. John] McCain." Santorum implied he believed Romney would have been a better conservative, but that the former Massachusetts governor "proved me wrong" by supporting the Wall Street bailout and defending his state's health care law.

Santorum's pivot to Romney suggests his campaign is concerned about the softening of his poll numbers in recent days. After victories in contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7, Santorum opened up a lead in the high single digits over Romney. Mitt Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor who was born and raised in the state, had been heavily favored before Santorum's burst of momentum. Even as Romney's campaign and a super PAC supporting him began raining down attacks on Santorum, he kept his sights on Obama.

That plan appears to have changed, in the wake of a weak debate performance in Arizona Wednesday night that put Santorum on defense over his record. With Romney beating him in some recent polls, Santorum is fighting back with negative ads of his own. A statewide television ad released by the campaign in Michigan yesterday compiles a list of some of Romney's less-than-conservative statements (watch the ad below). And the Red White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC, is spending $1.3 million in Michigan in advance of the Feb. 28 primary, including a $600,000 buy on Wednesday for an ad that compares Obama to Romney.



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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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