MILFORD, Mich. — A day after a feisty debate, Mitt Romney criticized Republican rival Rick Santorum and courted tea party voters Thursday in a pair of presidential primary states separated by nearly 2,000 miles.
Romney tried to upend Santorum's image as a principled defender of conservative ideals, telling voters the former senator is just another give-and-take politician.
Romney's team thinks Santorum opened himself to the attacks with a somewhat anguished explanation of his reluctant vote for a Bush-era school program in Wednesday's televised debate.
Romney hoped to stop Santorum's momentum on a day when he was quietly raising money. A Romney setback in either Michigan's primary or Arizona's on Tuesday would be embarrassing, or worse.
Romney pounced on Santorum's explanation for supporting President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program, now disliked by many conservatives. "It was against the principles I believed in," Santorum said in the debate. "But, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team."
"I wonder which team he was taking it for," Romney said Thursday at an Associated Builders and Contractors meeting in Phoenix, before heading to Michigan. "My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington."
The issue could prove troubling for Santorum, who lacks the money to match Romney's TV ads. Santorum's chief strength is his image as a courageous social conservative willing to confront voters about the moral implications of birth control, abortion, divorce and other issues.
Romney's focus on Santorum reinforced the notion that the GOP race is mostly a two-man contest heading toward the 10-state "Super Tuesday" primary on March 6. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, trying to stay within striking distance, campaigned Thursday in Washington state and Idaho. Rep. Ron Paul, like Santorum, had no public events Thursday.