Mitt Romney is fighting his way back into the driving seat in the Republican presidential race, putting in a strong debate performance in Arizona and gaining in polls against conservative rival Rick Santorum.
An aggressive Romney repeatedly put Santorum on the defensive in a CNN debate on Wednesday and attacked the former US senator and staunch social conservative for supporting big-spending government programs.
Romney has also battled his way into a slight lead in a new poll in Michigan, which along with Arizona will hold a primary contest on February 28. Romney had trailed Santorum by as much as double digits a week ago in the Michigan race.
The pace of the Republican race quickens dramatically next month, with 22 state nominating contests in March, including 10 on "Super Tuesday" March 6.
"This debate will really give Romney some momentum heading into the Michigan primary," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "Santorum clearly was having a hard time having to apologize and explain so many of his votes."
The debate was Santorum's first time in the political spotlight since charging into a national lead after winning three contests on February 7 in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.
But his sometimes awkward defense of votes he cast in the Senate, including his claim that politics was a "team sport" and that he sometimes had to vote for bills that did not like, could hurt his support among conservatives tired of Washington politics-as-usual.
"There is always an excuse," rival Ron Paul said of Santorum's various explanations. "That's what the problem is with Washington," said Paul, a Texas congressman who described Santorum's fiscal conservatism as "fake."
The primary in Michigan, where Romney was born and raised and his father was an auto executive and popular governor, has become a must-win for the former Massachusetts governor and former head of a private equity group.
A Romney loss there would be crippling blow that would set off alarm bells among Republicans about his ability to win the allegiance of conservatives, ensuring a long and potentially draining battle for the nomination.
But a win in Michigan and Arizona would put Romney back in command in a race that has featured a series of conservative rivals who have risen to challenge him only to fall back into the pack.
Santorum, a former US senator from Pennsylvania, is the latest candidate to seriously contest the party's nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama in a November 6 general election.
On Thursday, Romney will speak to a builders' group in Arizona before heading to Michigan for an evening rally of the conservative Tea Party movement. On Friday, he will address the Detroit Economic Club. Santorum is fund-raising in Texas on Thursday.
New polls in Michigan and Arizona on Wednesday showed Romney gaining ground on Santorum. He held a slight 2-point edge on Santorum in an NBC/Marist poll in Michigan, and a 16-point edge in an NBC/Marist poll in Arizona, where a CNN/Time poll earlier in the week gave him just a 4-point edge.
The broader campaign battleground in March could allow Romney to exercise his financial and organizational edge on his rivals, and put him in a strong position to knock them out and wrap up the race at least by April, if not earlier.
Santorum may have missed his chance at Wednesday's debate.
"Santorum needed a strong performance in the debate and he didn't get it," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "All eyes were on him. He had an opening and he missed it."
A devout Catholic, Santorum is best known for conservative positions on religious freedoms, abortion and gay marriage, but Romney took aim at him frequently on Wednesday night as a big spender.
"I'm looking at his historic record - voting for raising the debt ceiling five different times without voting for compensating cuts," Romney said.
"Voting to fund Planned Parenthood, to expand the Department of Education. During his term in the Senate, spending grew by some 80 percent of the federal government," he said. Planned Parenthood provides abortion, birth control and other health services to women.
Former US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented Georgia while he served in Congress, is hoping to rebound from his recent drop in the polls to reassert himself during some of the March contests in Southern states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
No other debates are scheduled in the Republican race, although more could be added if the contest stretches into April and beyond.