By KASIE HUNT and CHARLES BABINGTON
MILFORD, Mich. - One day after a feisty debate, Mitt Romney criticized Republican rival Rick Santorum and courted tea party voters Thursday in a pair of primary states separated by nearly 2,000 miles.
"I appreciate the work you're doing. I appreciate your willingness to get out of your homes," he told an audience of tea party members in suburban Detroit, an appearance designed to let him reach out to a part of the electorate that tends to favor his campaign rivals over him.
Romney drew applause when he attacked President Barack Obama as uninformed about the workings of the American economy and called him "a man comfortable living with trillion-dollar deficits."
But he largely sidestepped when asked how he could be able to counter Obama in a debate in the fall campaign if the president brought up similarities between the health care law Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts and the health care overhaul passed by Congress that Republican contenders have vowed to repeal.
That was an evident reference to a requirement for individuals to purchase coverage - at the heart of both laws - but Romney's answer omitted that topic. Instead, he said, "The first thing I'd say to him is, 'You say you copied (the Massachusetts law), how come you didn't give me a call? I'd have told you what worked what did not work."'
He added that the federal law was too expensive, raised taxes and cut $500 billion from Medicare over a decade.
Romney threw a glancing blow at Santorum, recalling that the former Pennsylvania senator had said in a debate in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday night that he had voted for President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law even though he didn't like it.
"He said, 'You know, you've got to take it for the team now and then.' Well, my team is the people of the United States of America."
That was Romney's message earlier in the day in Arizona, as he sought to upend Santorum's image as a principled defender of conservative ideals Thursday by describing him as just another give-and-take politician.
Michigan and Arizona both hold primaries on Feb. 28. Romney is heavily favored to win Arizona and claim all 29 delegates at stake, but Santorum is making an unexpectedly strong bid for an upset in the second contest, where 30 delegates are on the line.
Aides to Romney say Santorum opened himself to the attacks with a somewhat anguished explanation of his reluctant vote for the Bush-era school program in Wednesday's televised debate. Romney hoped to stop his chief rival's momentum on a day when Santorum was quietly raising money.
But Obama wasn't helping. His allies aired anti-Romney ads in Michigan while the president campaigned in Florida, a crucial swing state that GOP candidates can't afford to re-visit until their nominee is settled.
A Romney setback in either Michigan's primary or Arizona's on Tuesday would be embarrassing, or worse. His campaign seemed grateful for Santorum's unsteady showing in what may have been the GOP campaign's last big debate.
"It was against the principles I believed in," Santorum said of the Bush education law during the debate. "But, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team."
Santorum also struggled in the debate to explain his congressional votes for earmarked spending and for a bill that included money for Planned Parenthood despite his "personal moral objection" to the organization, which provides abortions for low-income women.
"I don't know that I've ever seen a politician explain in so many ways why he voted against his principles," Romney said Thursday at an Associated Builders and Contractors meeting in Phoenix.
The issue could prove troubling for Santorum, who lacks the money to match Romney's TV ads. Santorum's chief strengths include his image as a courageous social conservative willing to confront voters about the moral implications of birth control, abortion, divorce and other issues.
At a tea party rally in Tucson shortly before the debate, Santorum said he was "unafraid to go out and fight on all the issues we care about." He referred to Romney as "a well-oiled weather vane" that shifts with political winds.
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.
Given Arizona's significant Mormon population, a Romney loss there on Tuesday would be stunning. Nearly as crucial is Michigan, where Romney was born and his father was a three-term governor and top auto executive.
All four of the GOP candidates opposed the government's bailout of the auto industry, a big issue in Michigan and one that divides Republican voters. Obama calls it a smashing success. Romney has drawn the most fire on the topic, thanks to his Michigan ties and a 2008 newspaper article he wrote that was headlined, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
He says Chrysler and General Motors should have gone through a privately funded "managed bankruptcy," but independent analysts say only the federal government had the money at the time to keep the companies afloat.
A pro-Obama group Thursday released a TV ad in Michigan in which the narrator says, "When a million jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back." The ad shows Romney's face and his 2008 op-ed article.
In Miami on Thursday, Obama accused the Republicans of pushing a flawed and dishonest strategy for reducing gas prices, predicting they would offer nothing but more drilling and political promises of $2-a-gallon gas. "The American people aren't stupid," Obama said.
Santorum didn't back away from his "take one for the team" comment after the debate. Asked by a reporter if he would change his words if he had the chance, Santorum responded: "Not at all. Politics is a team sport."
Romney plans to campaign in Michigan every day until Tuesday, with a side trip Saturday to Florida for the Daytona 500 car race. "We're going to win Michigan," said his strategist Stuart Stevens.
Santorum is trying to avoid being swamped by Romney's TV spending in Michigan. Romney's campaign and a friendly "Super Pac" bought $2 million of air time in Michigan for the primary's final week, while Santorum and his allies bought about $1.4 million. An anti-abortion group helped Santorum with $150,000 in Michigan radio ads.
Gingrich is not competing in Michigan. He was planning an unusual 30-minute commercial on energy policy in states including Washington.
Santorum was buying ad time on cable channels in Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee, which are among the Super Tuesday states. The pro-Romney pac has bought $590,490 of air time in Ohio.
Santorum planned to campaign Friday and Saturday in the Detroit area.
AP Special Correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.