SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Mitt Romney last night accused fellow Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of “dirty tricks” by politicizing the Iraq war and questioning his support of President Bush’s strategy.
“I have never, ever supported a specific timetable for exit [from] Iraq, and it’s offensive to me that someone would suggest I have,” the former Massachusetts governor said, adding that it “falls in the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible.”
The exchange took place in the final Republican debate before the Feb. 5 primaries when more than 20 states vote. It was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here.
In the past week, Mr. McCain accused Mr. Romney of supporting secret “timetables” for withdrawal from Iraq, pointing to an interview that Mr. Romney gave in April that most observers say Mr. McCain misconstrued.
“It’s simply wrong, and the senator knows it,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. McCain, though, said Mr. Romney failed to stand up and defend the surge in 2006, and said by using the word “timetables” in April that he was buying into Democrats’ “buzzword for withdrawal.”
“I was out there on the front lines with my friends, saying we not only can’t withdraw, but we’ve got to have additional troops over there,” Mr. McCain said.
After winning Florida’s primary Tuesday, the Arizona senator is the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and Mr. Romney is now his chief opponent, so the two sparred repeatedly.
Mr. Romney said Mr. McCain’s repeated teaming up with Democrats — on immigration, rewriting campaign-finance laws and mandating caps on global-warming gasses — are an affront to conservative voters.
“If you get endorsed by the New York Times, you’re probably not a conservative,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. McCain, though, told Mr. Romney that he was proud of his endorsements, including both daily newspapers in Boston — “your two hometown newspapers who know you best.”
He countered with a slap at Mr. Romney’s record, which he said amounted to running a business.
“He bought and he sold, and sometimes people lost their jobs,” Mr. McCain said.
The debate was a curious affair — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul, the two other candidates who were also on the stage, seemed nearly to be afterthoughts.
“You want to talk conservative credentials, let me get in on that,” Mr. Huckabee said, repeatedly requesting more questions be directed his way.
Mr. Bush suffered a verbal beating from his fellow Republicans last night, as Mr. Romney said the Republican Party is worse now than it was eight years ago — though he said Mr. Bush doesn’t deserve all of the blame. And Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Paul both said Americans are not better off now economically than they were eight years ago.
“We’re not better off; we’re worse off,” Mr. Paul said, blaming the national economic structure since the founding of the Federal Reserve and the New Deal, as well as Mr. Bush.
Mr. McCain ducked two questions during the debate. He failed to answer directly when asked whether he stood by his comments at the time that Mr. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts were wrong because they favored the wealthy, and he refused to say whether he would sign the immigration bill that he sponsored in the Senate.
Instead, he insisted that such a bill won’t be passed again.
“It would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the border secured first,” he said.
Immigration also tripped up Mr. Huckabee, who changed his position on birthright citizenship, the U.S. policy of granting citizenship automatically to nearly all children born in the U.S., even if they are born to illegal aliens.
Asked last night whether he would change the law, he said, “I think the Supreme Court has already ruled on that. The real issue is, that doesn’t fix the problem.”
But in August he told The Washington Times that he would change the law.
“I would support changing that. I think there is reason to revisit that, just because a person, through sheer chance of geography, happened to be physically here at the point of birth, doesn’t necessarily constitute citizenship,” he said at the time, according to the audiotape of the interview. “I think that’s a very reasonable thing to do, to revisit that.”