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U.S. Republican presidential candidates spar in debate as race drags on

(Xinhua)

14:09, February 23, 2012

WASHINGTON, Feb. 22 (Xinhua) -- Four U.S. Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday evening engaged in a nationally televised debate in almost a month, and they took the opportunity to gain a more solid footing in voters' minds before crucial primary battles next week.

The debate took place in Mesa, Arizona. Together with Michigan, Arizona will hold primary next Tuesday, and all four candidates attacked each other from the beginning, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, now a frontrunner, took some of the most fierce attacks.

The debate focused mostly on spending. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is in dead heat with or trailing Santorum in polls, accused him of voting five times while in Congress to raise the government's debt limit and supported increased spending for Planned Parenthood.

Ron Paul, the libertarian leaning Texas Congressman, added salt to an insult by saying that Santorum was a "fake conservative" who had voted for programs that he now says he wants to repeal.

Santorum then fought back by saying that government spending declined as a percentage of the economy when he was in the Senate. He attacked Romney over his healthcare reform in Massachusetts.

The one candidate who didn't engage in the fight was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, mostly spoke of his visions for various issues, including energy policies, how to reform the civil services and secure the border.

The stakes in this debate was high, as it was the first one in almost a month, and the last one before next week's primaries, as well as Super Tuesday early next month.

After wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Santorum soared to be the latest alternative to Romney, who was the presumed frontrunner throughout the race.

As Santorum gains momentum, Romney was eager to beat Santorum in next week's battles, while brushing off challenges mounted by Ginrich and Paul, who are also trying to stay relevant in the race.

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