Rick Santorum under fire in GOP debate

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz, -- The stakes were high as the Republican presidential hopefuls took part in yet another debate last night.

They're only days away from primaries in Arizona and the crucial state of Michigan, and less than two weeks from Super Tuesday. And the latest national poll, from AP/GFK, shows Rick Santorum's lead over Mitt Romney has shrunk to only one point.

Since their previous debate, the Republican race had turned upside down. Santorum is the new front-runner, Romney is fighting to get the lead back, Newt Gingrich has plummeted and Ron Paul remains a player.

All that led to some fiery exchanges -- especially involving Santorum -- as the candidates repeatedly clashed on issues big and small. The new and former front-runners, in particular, slugged it out.

Santorum asserted, "It would be a difficult task for someone who had the model for 'Obamacare,' which is the biggest issue in this race of government control of your lives, to be the nominee of our party -- you would take that issue completely off the table."

Romney shot back, saying, "Let's not forget that, four years ago, well after 'Romneycare' was put in place, you not only endorsed me, you went on Laura Ingraham and said, 'This is a guy who is really conservative and we can trust him."'

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For most of the night, Santorum was under siege.

Ron Paul hit hardest.

When asked by debate moderator John King of CNN why he has a new TV ad out labeling Santorum a fake, Paul said simply, "Because he is a fake."

Santorum fought back, saying, "I was the most fiscally conservative senator in the Congress in the 12 years I was there."

But Paul kept swinging. "That's always a cop-out, when you compare yourself to the other members of Congress," Paul remarked. "The American people are sick and tired of the members of Congress."

The attacks left the impression Santorum was just another Washington insider.

And with Santorum struggling to get his footing, Gingrich returned to form -- attacking the media and bashing President Obama.

"If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama," Gingrich said.

Asked about birth control, Gingrich defended Republicans and lashed out at the media for not investigating why Mr. Obama, as a state senator, opposed a bill to protect fetuses in botched abortions. Gingrich said the media "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."

Romney also came out strong -- hitting the president repeatedly on economic and social issues -- including Mr. Obama's decision to require religious-backed institutions to provide employees birth control. "I don't think we've seen in the history of this country," Romney charged, "the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama."

The debate may have changed the race a little. Santorum just didnt have that standout night he needed to close the deal, and Gingrich, delivering a strong performance, may have gotten some voters who've been looking for that alternative to Romney, back from Santorum. And of course, if voters remain divided between Santorum and Gingrich, that means the real winner last night was Romney.

To see Jan Crawford's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Jan Crawford On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.

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