Republican Mitt Romney said John McCain used dirty tricks by suggesting shortly before the Florida primary that the former Massachusetts governor wanted a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, as the two men squared off in a spirited debate Wednesday night.
Coming 24 hours after McCain defeated him in the Florida election, Romney vented his frustrations over the Arizona senator’s claims.
“I have never, ever supported a specific timetable” for withdrawing troops, Romney said. McCain’s accusation on the eve of Tuesday’s presidential 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.
McCain stuck to his guns, saying, “of course he said he wanted a timetable” for a withdrawal.
McCain made the allegation over the weekend 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,” but only 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.”
The 90-minute debate allowed McCain and Romney to focus on one another after Florida voters left no doubt they are the two viable contenders for their party’s nomination. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani left the race earlier Wednesday and endorsed McCain.
In a major boost for McCain, Romney signaled earlier Wednesday that he's not ready to commit to a costly campaign in the states holding primaries and caucuses next week.
Several officials said that on the heels of a defeat in Tuesday's Florida primary, Romney's campaign was not attempting to purchase television advertising time in any of the states on the Super Tuesday calendar.
Instead, the former Massachusetts governor's current plans call for campaigning in California and other primary states, said the officials, who had knowledge of the internal discussions. There would be organizational efforts primarily for caucus states.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will endorse McCain on Thursday, six days before California’s high-prize primary, his senior aides confirmed Wednesday. Schwarzenegger was in the debate audience, as was Nancy Reagan, widow of the former president.
Complicating Romney's prospects is the continued presence of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the race. The Baptist preacher-turned-politician has shown an ability to draw votes from evangelical conservatives, effectively splitting the anti-McCain vote.
Battle of conservative credentials
Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also participated in the debate, televised nationally on CNN, but largely watched as the two front-runners, seated next to each other, jabbed one another.
Huckabee protested, “This isn’t a two-man race.”
“If you want to talk conservative credentials, let me get in on that,” said Huckabee, who has won no contest since the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.
Romney said McCain is out of the conservative mainstream, as the rivals for the Republican presidential nomination vied for votes in next week’s multistate primary.
Romney said McCain 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 more helpful to Democrats.
“Those view are outside the view of mainstream Republican thought,” Romney said in the opening moments of a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
McCain said Romney left Massachusetts with high taxes and a large debt. “His job creation was the third-worst in the country,” McCain said.
Romney said McCain opposed Bush’s first-term tax cuts because they were tilted largely toward the wealthy. But such a cut, Romney said, “gets our rates down and stimulates the economy.”
McCain said he opposes tax cuts not coupled with spending restraints. Republicans lost congressional seats in 2006 less because of the Iraq war than because of out-of-control spending that alienated conservatives, McCain said.
McCain tried to deflect questions on illegal immigration, a sore point with many Republicans who resented his push for a bill, ultimately unsuccessful, that would have granted a path to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants now in the country.
Asked whether he would vote for his bill now, McCain replied that it won’t come to a vote “because people want the borders secured first.” He said he supports new efforts to prevent illegal crossings.
California, with its large immigrant population, is one of several states voting on Tuesday.
Next up is Super Tuesday
Republicans in 22 states select a total of 1,023 convention delegates next week.
In the Republican race, the loser in a statewide race can come away with no delegates to show for his trouble.
Thus, Arizona's 53 delegates go to the top statewide vote getter — an obvious advantage for its home-state senator, McCain. So, too, New York, with 101 delegates awarded to the statewide winner, and Giuliani eager to make sure they, too, belong to McCain.
Missouri (58 delegates), New Jersey (52) Connecticut (27) Delaware (18), also award all its delegates to the statewide winner, as do Utah (36), Montana (25) and Alaska (26).
Romney's political base of Massachusetts, with 40 delegates, is one of relatively few states to award delegates proportionately on the basis of popular vote.
Several states award their delegates winner-take-all to the top vote-getter in each congressional district.