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Video: Romney, Santorum trade jabs in fiery debate

  1. Closed captioning of: Romney, Santorum trade jabs in fiery debate

    >>> now to politics on the 20th and possibly the final debate of the republican presidential race. the candidates faced off in arizona last night, just six days before next tuesday's key primaries. nbc's peter alexander is in mesa, arizona with more. good morning.

    >> good morning to you. this was a crucial debate at a critical time. now just five days before the vote in michigan . a state where mitt romney and rick santorum are deadlocked in a virtual tie. for santorum with all the momentum right now, last night was viewed as an opportunity. but he spent most of the night struggling to break through.

    >> gas prices and the economy and i'm here to talk about a positive solution to the problems that confront this country.

    >> finally in the spotlight, rick santorum quickly found himself on the defensive. admitting he made a mistake by backing president bush on no child left behind .

    >> you know, i supported no child left behind . i supported it, it was against the principles i believed in. but you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team for the leader and i made a mistake. politics is a team sport , folks.

    >> mitt romney chose not to pounce on santorum 's admission. but ron paul did.

    >> he calls it a team sport . he has to go along to get along and that's the way the team plays. that's the problem with washington, that's what's been going on for so long.

    >> for his part, romney tried to play up his credentials as a fiscal conservative .

    >> i've lived balancing budgets. i also served in the olympics, balanced the budget there. and served in the state and in all four years i was governor, we balanced the budget.

    >> but santorum dismissed that argument. comparing romney to another former massachusetts governor .

    >> yes, governor, you balanced the budget for four years, you have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget for four years, no great shakes. michael dukakis balanced the budget for ten years, does that make him qualified to be president of the united states ? i don't think so.

    >> romney fought back, challenging santorum as a washington insider who favored earmarks.

    >> while i was fighting to save the olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere .

    >> but newt gingrich accused romney of having a double standard .

    >> i think it was totally appropriate for you to ask for what you got. i think it's kind of silly for you to turn around and run an ad attacking somebody else for what you got and claiming what you got wasn't what they got, because what you got was right and what they got was wrong.

    >> when the debate turned to social issues that fuelled headlines for the last week, the republican crowd growned.

    >> since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control and if not, why?

    >> side-stepping his personal views on birth control , santorum gave an answer that struck a chord with his audience.

    >> here's the difference between me and the left and they don't get this. just because i'm talking about it, doesn't mean i want a government program to fix it. that's what they do, that's not what we do.

    >> in a lighter moment, the candidates were asked to describe themselves in a single word.

    >> consistent.

    >> senator santorum ?

    >> courage.

    >> senator? resolu resolute.

    >> mr. speaker? cheerful.

    >> now all eyes again turn back to michigan . the key vote is next tuesday. and it's a state where romney was born and raised. but in recent days, ann, romney campaign had been referring to their candidate as the underdog. but early this morning, a senior adviser tells me they feel strongly they are in good shape, ahead of both michigan and arizona .

TODAY contributor
updated 2/23/2012 3:01:33 PM ET 2012-02-23T20:01:33

Birth control was the boo-eliciting buzz word during Wednesday night’s Republican debates in Mesa, Arizona — a hot-button topic that brought to the fore political and gender differences on the debate over contraception.

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CNN moderator John King barely finished reading a submitted question about the candidates' stance on birth control when the audience booed. The debaters echoed the audience's sour mood on the topic.

"The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing," former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said during the debate of concerns about what he sees as eroding family values. "And someone has got to go out there — I will — and talk about those things."

Each of the four Republican contenders largely sidestepped directly answering a question on their stances on birth control and instead criticized President Obama for his administration’s move to have health insurers cover contraception for religious institution employees.

"I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Video: Romney, Santorum trade jabs in fiery debate (on this page)

But political experts say the GOP presidential hopefuls will have to navigate the culture wars carefully if they want to avoid alienating moderate women voters. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed that 54 percent of Americans approve and 38 percent disapprove of the president’s compromise on health insurance coverage for employees of religious institutions seeking birth control.

Women approved the president’s move 56 to 36 percent, the poll showed.

"Women make up over half of the voters, so there’s a broad spectrum of what women care about. But Republicans should be concerned about moderate women in suburban areas who might be turned off by a perception that the Republican Party is focused on social issues," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan political publication based in Washington D.C.

NBC Politics: Romney and Santorum clash on a range of issues in critical debate

Santorum’s previous statements in interviews about birth control and the "dangers" of contraception have drawn fire. Wednesday’s NBC/Marist poll had Romney and Santorum in a statistical dead heat among Michigan’s likely primary voters.

As Super Tuesday looms and Santorum whittles away at Romney’s perceived lead, the former Pennsylvania senator will likely face intensified scrutiny from female voters in particular about his stances on family planning. In fact, Santorum’s very presence in the race may be fueling the birth control debate, said Larry Sabato, a political expert with the University of Virginia.

"It stems from the fact that a large portion of the Republicans Party is made up of social conservatives," Sabato said. "They have a representative on that stage now in Rick Santorum who is a conservative. It’s a hot-button issue. People’s ears perk up."

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