Santorum fights charges he's a "fake" conservative

Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sit together at the start of a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Jae C. Hong

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Wednesday night fought back against charges from his GOP rivals that he's a "fake" fiscal conservative, pointing to the ratings he received as a legislator from conservative groups and his plan to dramatically cut federal spending.

In a debate in Mesa, Arizona, CNN debate moderator John King asked Rep. Ron Paul why he's running a negative ad against Santorum that calls him a "fake" conservative.

"Because he's a fake," Paul retorted. The libertarian congressman said he finds it "fascinating" that politicians will support one policy in office and then campaign on repealing it. Moments before, Santorum acknowledged that while in Congress he backed No Child Left Behind, the landmark legislation championed by President George W. Bush that increases the federal government's role in education policy. Now, however, he said he thinks the program should be eliminated.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also slammed Santorum for voting to expand the Department of Education with his support for No Child Left Behind, as well as voting to raise the debt ceiling.

Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania, said he had "a strong record in a tough state to be a conservative." He pointed out that the American Conservative Union gave his voting record a grade of 90 percent while conservative groups have ranked Paul lower in terms of conservatism.

He touted his plan calling for cutting the federal budget by $5 trillion over five years, noting that he would apply means testing and other conservative reforms to federal programs like Social Security and Medicaid while preserving defense spending.

"If you think defense spending's the problem, you need remedial math class," he said.

Paul, meanwhile, said spending abroad is a large part of the problem.

"If you're a strict fiscal conservative and constitutionalist, you don't vote for that kind of stuff," he said.

More from the debate:

Republican candidates spar over congressional spending
GOP candidates blast Obama for birth control ruling
Republican candidates condemn auto bailout

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