Former Sen. Bob Dole, the failed Republican presidential candidate in 1996, became the focus Tuesday of an increasingly testy exchange between GOP presidential contenders John McCain and Mitt Romney.
The tit-for-tat began with Dole coming to the aid of McCain, a fellow war hero and former Senate colleague, in a letter to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. He has relentlessly criticized the front-running Arizona senator as insufficiently conservative.
Before long, McCain was claiming Romney disparaged Dole and should apologize.
Romney countered that he had nothing to apologize for, but nonetheless, he tried to phone Dole from his campaign plane.
In a letter released by McCain's campaign Monday, Dole wrote Limbaugh: "I know that you have serious reservations about Senator McCain."
"McCain is a friend and I proudly wore his POW bracelet bearing his name while he was still a guest at the 'Hanoi Hilton.' I believe our major candidates are mainstream conservatives. ... Whoever wins the Republican nomination will need your enthusiastic support," Dole wrote.
Asked about Dole's letter on the FOX News' "FOX & Friends" Tuesday, Romney, who has tried to portray himself as a genuine conservative alternative to McCain, responded: "It's probably the last person I would have wanted write a letter for me. I think there's a lot of folks who tend to think that maybe John McCain's race is a bit like Bob Dole's race. That it's the guy who's next in line, the inevitable choice."
McCain lost no time in jumping on Romney's critique of Dole.
"I think he should apologize," McCain told reporters aboard his campaign plane. "This is no way to end his campaign, by attacking a genuine American war hero." Dole was wounded in Europe during World War II and lost most of the use of one arm.
Romney, seeking to win delegates at the state GOP convention here, declined McCain's invitation to apologize. He said his remark was being misconstrued as an attack on Dole's heroism when it was focused on the history of the 1996 presidential race.
Referring to Dole as "an American hero, a war hero, a fine man and a great leader of our party," Romney told reporters: "I do not think highly of the mental set that says we should choose our nominee based on how many years they've served and how long they've waited in line."
Romney said the choice should be made on vision, values, energy, passion and the ability to change Washington, "and I think I win that battle."
Romney nevertheless tried to reach Dole at his office, leaving a message for him. He showed no such impulse toward McCain.
An aide to the Arizona senator distributed a leaflet to reporters covering Romney's convention speech here that listed supposed flip-flops by the former Massachusetts governor.
Asked about the document during a news conference, Romney said: "What you have in your hand simply is not accurate, and Senator McCain has proven that he will say anything to win this election."