Team Romney Bashes Rick Santorum on Earmarks

Pawlenty takes aim at Santorum's spending record.

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign gave a clear sign Monday that it considers former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as its top competition in Colorado and Minnesota, two states caucusing Tuesday.

The GOP presidential front-runner dispatched former Minnesota governor and failed presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty to attack Santorum's record on spending.

"If you look at his record overall, there's a number of things that should be concerning about that record to conservatives," said Pawlenty of Santorum during a conference call with reporters. "His votes and his behavior in the Congress reflect that drift away from fiscal discipline. He proudly and enthusiastically embraced earmarking."

[Read: Superbowl ad draws criticism.]

Romney's campaign has held regular such calls attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the past, so Monday's focus on Santorum marks a change.

Pawlenty cited Santorum's support for the so-called 'Bridge-to-Nowhere' earmark, a federally paid-for polar bear exhibit in Pittsburgh, as well as 'numerous' votes to increase the debt ceiling as examples of Santorum's penchant for spending.

"We need a next president who has been strong and proven in fiscal and spending matters and yet we have Rick Santorum voting numerous times to raise the debt ceiling," Pawlenty said. "So he clearly has been part of the big spending establishment in Congress and in the influence-peddling industry that surrounds Congress."

Santorum's camp fired out a rapid response to the call saying Romney is attacking because polling shows Santorum as "by far Romney's most significant opponent."

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

"Romney never touts his own record because it's abysmal," said Hogan Gidley, a Santorum campaign consultant, in the release. "In the Republican Party we have a name for someone who supports government healthcare mandates, big bank bailouts, and radical cap-and-trade initiatives - we call them Democrats."

Santorum is the best conservative opponent to take on President Barack Obama because he can credibly take on the president on those issues, but Romney can't, Gidley said.

"[Romney's] attack and smear campaign is his way of avoiding his liberal record," he said.

The Romney campaign then released the text of Santorum's 2008 endorsement of Romney during that presidential contest.

"Conservatives can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines in this election and Gov. Romney is the candidate who will stand up for the conservative principles that we hold dear," said Santorum, according to the release. "Gov. Romney has a deep understanding of the important issues confronting our country today and he is the clear conservative candidate that can go into the general election with a united Republican party."

[Romney's Mormon issue.]

The back-and-forth between the campaigns indicates Romney's team is taking nothing lightly from here on out and shows a sensitivity to Santorum's pitch for the 'most conservative' mantle.

"If you look at his record, it's not a perfect, conservative record by a long shot," Pawlenty said.

Recent polling shows Santorum with a narrow lead among GOP voters in Minnesota over Romney, though Romney tops Santorum in Colorado by a double-digit margin.

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