McCain, Romney spar in latest debate

January 31, 2008 8:45:55 AM PST
Republican Mitt Romney accused John McCain of using dirty tricks by suggesting the former Massachusetts governor wanted a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, in a spirited debate Wednesday night that underscored the intensity of their presidential rivalry. Coming 24 hours after McCain defeated him in Florida, Romney vented his frustrations over the Arizona senator's claims from last weekend.

"I have never, ever supported a specific timetable" for withdrawing troops, Romney said. McCain's accusation on the eve of Tuesday's primary, he said, "sort of falls into the dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible."

The debate was held in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., six days before more than 20 states hold primaries or caucuses that could make either McCain or Romney the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination.

McCain stuck to his guns, saying, "of course he said he wanted a timetable" for a withdrawal. McCain had made the allegation in Florida as he tried to shift the debate from the ailing economy, a stronger issue for Romney, a former venture capitalist and businessman.

Last April, Romney said U.S. and Iraqi leaders "have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about" in private.

In Wednesday's debate, Romney said he was not calling for a specific withdrawal date. "It's simply wrong, and the senator knows it," he said. "I will not pull our troops out until we have brought success in Iraq."

For 90 minutes, Romney and McCain sharply challenged each other's conservative credentials and ability to lead the country. But they generally remained civil, and each called the other "a fine man."

Romney tried to portray McCain, who performs well among political independents, as out of the conservative mainstream as the contest moves toward a cluster of states where only registered Republicans can vote. He said the Arizona senator twice voted against President Bush's tax cuts and pushed campaign finance reforms that restricted fundraising and spending. The Republican establishment embraced the tax cuts and opposed the new campaign law, which many saw as helpful to Democrats.

"Those views are outside the view of mainstream Republican thought," Romney said. He made similar arguments in Florida, but lost to McCain by 5 percentage points.

McCain disputed the claims. "I'm proud of my conservative record," he said.

In a counterpunch, he said Romney left Massachusetts with high taxes and a large debt. "His job creation was the third worst in the country," McCain said, a claim Romney rejected.

The debate allowed McCain and Romney to focus on one another after Florida voters left no doubt that they are the party's two viable contenders. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani left the race earlier Wednesday and endorsed McCain.

During the debate, The Associated Press reported that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would endorse McCain on Thursday. Schwarzenegger was in the audience, as was Nancy Reagan, widow of the former president.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also participated in the debate televised by CNN, but largely watched as the two front-runners, who were seated next to each other, trade barbs. Huckabee protested, "this isn't a two-man race."


Load Comments