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For the first time, Santorum begins tonight's debate more as a front-runner than as a challenger.
The four surviving Republican contenders for their party's nomination for the US presidency have taken the floor at a CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz. this eveing, with the focus squarely on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the new leader in national polls.
Once the presumptive front-runner, former Massachusettts Governor Mitt Romney is now chasing Santorum in national polls. The most recent results from the Gallup tracking poll in the Republican primary show Santorum leading Romney by 8 percentage points, down slightly in recent days.
More from GlobalPost: Romney: Arizona now too close to call as Santorum rises
However a new NBC/Marist poll shows Romney comfortably back in the lead in Arizona, leading Santorum 43 percent to 27 percent. A CNN poll at the weekend, when Romney's co-chair in the state had resigned in a sex scandal, had put the two in a statistical dead heat.
As the debate began this evening, sharp elbows were in evidence. Paul referred to Santorum as a "fake" for claiming to have been a fiscal conservative and Romney seconded this challenge, saying that Santorum had voted to increase the limit on US sovereign debt five times while serving in the US Senate.
Santorum rejected this, saying US debt had dropped from 68 percent to 64 percent of GDP during his tenure in Congress. Santorum also promised to end what he described as growth in entitlement spending, ending President Barack Obama's health care reforms, for example.
Romney replied by pointing to Santorum's use of earmarks in federal spending.
"While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere," Romney said, referring to a much-derided bridge in Alaska.
Santorum appeared angered.
"You're entitled to your opinions but you're not entitled to misrepresent the facts," Santorum replied. "You don't know what you're talking about."
Booing erupted from the crowd.