Mitt Romney launched an aggressive assault on Rick Santorum in person and over the airwaves Friday even as fresh evidence emerged of how momentum had shifted in the Republican presidential race: A prominent Romney backer in Ohio ditched him to throw his support behind Santorum.
Despite Santorum's recent surge, Romney had regularly ignored him to focus on President Obama. That stopped on Friday.
"If you want a fiscal conservative, you can't vote for Rick Santorum because he's not a deficit hawk," Romney told a few hundred rowdy supporters gathered in a modular-home factory in Boise. "He says he's not a deficit hawk. I am. I'm a fiscal conservative. I'll balance the budget."
Romney's campaign on Friday unleashed a barrage of negative television and radio ads in Michigan that seek to harm Santorum's standing among tea party voters, who could be pivotal in the Feb. 28 primary. The television spots feature a blurry video of Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, being interviewed about spending and proclaiming, "I'll defend earmarks."
A group of unaffiliated Romney supporters is running another ad that notes what it says was Santorum's repeated support for increasing the nation's debt ceiling, as well as votes to increase federal spending and elected officials' pay and to allow convicted felons to vote after their release from prison.
The charges were mirrored in criticisms Romney leveled Friday in Boise.
"We'll all hear people talk about what they'll do to try and trim the size of the federal government," Romney said. "You have to look at people's records as well as their words."
He urged voters to consider Santorum's nearly two decades in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
"During that time, the size of the federal government doubled," Romney said. "By the way, he voted to raise the debt ceiling five different times without compensating cuts. And he's a big proponent of earmarks — he voted for billions of dollars of earmarks, including the 'bridge to nowhere.'"
Romney was appearing in Idaho less than three weeks before the state holds its first-ever caucuses, with 32 delegates at stake, and as polls showed Santorum gaining support in Michigan and Ohio after recent victories in three other states.
While Romney was running a starkly negative campaign, Santorum and his supporters were running positive ads arguing that he is the only proven conservative in the race.
His campaign received a marketing boost when Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine dropped his support of Romney and endorsed Santorum in front of a small crowd at the Ohio Statehouse. DeWine said he had endorsed Romney in October because he believed the former Massachusetts governor stood the best chance of beating Obama, and that his "friend Rick Santorum" had no chance of beating Romney.
"I was wrong," DeWine said, as Santorum stood next to him smiling.
When DeWine finished his remarks, Santorum hugged him, kissed DeWine's wife, and spoke briefly, saying he knew how difficult it was for DeWine to abandon Romney. "We feel good about how things are going in this state," he said.
Santorum and DeWine have a similar history; both were defeated in Senate reelection bids in 2006.
Besides a large media contingent, about 50 people turned out to hear the announcement, warmly applauding Santorum and calling out encouragement to him afterward.
"Beat Obama," yelled one man in an Iraq veterans baseball cap, as he held out a beefy hand for Santorum to shake.
"I'm working on it, buddy," Santorum replied.
Mehta reported from Boise and Landsberg from Columbus.
Times staff writer Paul West in Bay City, Mich., contributed to this report.