Stung by Mitt Romney's accusation that he's a big-spending Washington insider, Rick Santorum responded Tuesday by calling himself an outsider who went to Congress and "shook things up from its very core" during his four years in the House and 12 years in the Senate.
Santorum's defense of his legislative record at a Republican lunch in Arizona came as Romney renewed his attacks on the former Pennsylvania lawmaker at a campaign stop in Michigan.
The Michigan and Arizona primaries Tuesday are shaping up as crucial contests in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. Romney, who grew up in Michigan, is scrambling to stop Santorum from defeating him in his home state, a potentially devastating blow.
Introducing Romney to voters at a tool and machine shop in Shelby Township, outside Detroit, state Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette acknowledged that the former Massachusetts governor had reached a perilous juncture, calling him "this Michigan guy who's fighting like an underdog in this barn-burner of a campaign."
Later, a voter asked Romney why Santorum was surging when he was a Washington insider. Romney took the opportunity to remind the crowd that Santorum had repeatedly voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling and approve lawmakers' pork-barrel projects.
"I don't think that's consistent with the principles of conservatism," Romney said. "I don't think Rick Santorum's track record is one of a fiscal conservative."
Santorum worked as a lobbyist before and after his tenure in Congress, he added. "That insider life in Washington, I don't believe is the kind of change we need in Washington," said Romney, who once ran for a seat in the Senate and has relied heavily on Washington insiders for campaign donations.
At the Maricopa County lunch, Santorum mocked his chief rival, saying, "Unlike some folks who criticize people who actually get elected and actually try to do things, we actually … made a difference inside the institution.
"You may see all these commercials, 'Oh, Rick Santorum is a big spender,' " he added. "But they've never once talked about how I voted for any increase or an appropriation bill. Why? Because I never did."
Santorum called himself "an outsider when he was inside," saying he had "exposed scandal after scandal," such as a congressional check-kiting scheme. He also said he had never voted to raise taxes.
From Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Gingrich told CBS that a Santorum victory in Michigan would be "a big step up" for the former senator and "an enormous defeat" for Romney on his home turf.
Gingrich also said his own plans to abolish capital gains taxes and create personal Social Security investment accounts, among other things, made him a stronger agent of change than Santorum.
"There are a number of areas where I think I'm probably much bolder than Sen. Santorum," Gingrich said. "But in a sense, we both represent a much more conservative wing of the party than does Gov. Romney, who represents a kind of Northeastern moderatism."
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.