John McCain and Mitt Romney carried their bitter Florida clash intoCalifornia on Wednesday, each impugning the other's honesty in ahot-tempered debate as they sought to attract voters castingballots in five days in a coast-to-coast array of primaries andcaucuses.
McCain, caustic for much of the debate, castigated Romney for whathe said was a past insinuation that America should withdraw fromIraq. McCain contrasted that with his own early support for the"surge" of American troops that has reduced violence in some areasof the country.
Romney called the accusation "reprehensible" and said the Arizonasenator was deliberately misrepresenting his comments because of aweakness for "Washington-style" negative campaigning. The argumentscame in a 90-minute debate sponsored by The Times, CNN and Politico;a Democratic debate will be held in Los Angeles tonight.
Wednesday's gathering may have been held at the Ronald ReaganPresidential Library near Simi Valley, but the former president'sfamous adage that the GOP's "11th Commandment" precluded damagingfellow Republicans appeared lost to history.
The testiest exchange stemmed from an ABC News interview last Aprilin which Romney, when asked, said that it was appropriate forPresident Bush and Iraqi leaders to devise "timetables andmilestones" to measure progress in Iraq. In the closing days beforeFlorida's Tuesday primary, McCain wielded the comments as evidencethat Romney was ready to abandon Iraq.
The full quote included Romney's statement that such markers shouldbe private so they would not signal American intentions to theenemy. Nevertheless, McCain insisted Wednesday that "timetables"were code for retreat.
In reply, Romney said, "Let me make it absolutely clear againtonight: I will not pull our troops out until we have broughtsuccess in Iraq." He added that "raising it a few days before theFlorida primary, when there was very little time for me to correctthe record . . . sort of falls into the kind of dirty tricks that Ithink Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible."
"Governor, the right answer to that question was 'no,'" McCaincountered, referring to the ABC interview. " . . . 'Timetables' wasthe buzzword for withdrawal."
McCain attempted to link Romney's comments on timetables to hisunrelated refusal, before his presidential campaign began, to statea position on the troop surge.
"It's simply wrong," Romney said. "And the senator knows it."
McCain then threw back at Romney one of the sources of theanimosity between the two: the millions of dollars in attack adsthat the former Massachusetts governor ran against Mike Huckabee inIowa and McCain in New Hampshire.
"Your negative ads, my friend, are -- have set the tone,unfortunately, in this campaign," McCain said.
Each declared the other unfit to assume the presidency.
"I know how to lead," McCain said at one point, sharpening adistinction between himself and Romney, a longtime businessman whonever served in the military. "I led the largest squadron in theUnited States Navy, and I did it out of patriotism, not for profit.. . . I don't need any on-the-job training."
The former governor, after praising McCain's military service,declared that voters "don't look to senators" for leadership.Senators, he said, are "committee chairs, and they call thatleadership."
Later, when each was asked why Reagan would have endorsed him,Romney said he -- and not McCain -- was part of the party's "heartand soul."
"Ronald Reagan would not approve of someone who changes theirpositions depending on what the year is," McCain replied.
The tension between McCain and Romney, the two leading Republicancandidates, was heightened because the two sat next to each other,uncomfortable and occasionally glaring, as the insults burst forth.Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the twoother participants, were often left out.
"I didn't come here to umpire a ballgame between these two," anirritated Huckabee said at one point, motioning to McCain andRomney. "I came here to get a chance to swing at a few myself."
The tone between the two was set at the debate's beginning, whenquestioner Janet Hook of The Times noted Romney's frequentcriticisms this week that McCain would follow a "liberalDemocratic" course.
Romney said McCain was "out of the mainstream" of Republicanthought on a host of issues. He cited McCain's opposition todrilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge and his past opposition toPresident Bush's tax cuts. Romney underscored his point by notingthat McCain was endorsed by the New York Times, a publicationreviled by conservative activists.
"Let me note that I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers,who know you best," McCain replied icily. " . . . I'll guaranteeyou the Arizona Republic will be endorsing me, my friend."
As the plane that served as Reagan's Air Force One loomed,gleaming, behind them, and a frail Nancy Reagan watched from thefront row, the four men touched on a series of disputes central tothe brand of Republicanism that Reagan propelled into the White House in 1980.
Each, citing the power of states, sided with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his dispute with the Bush administration overCalifornia's desire to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Theysquirmed, however, when moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN read fromRonald Reagan's journal about the conservative outcry over his 1981appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cooper asked each whether retired Justice O'Connor, viewed withcontempt by conservatives for favoring abortion rights, was a goodappointee. Paul was the sole candidate to directly answer thequestion.
"I wouldn't have appointed her, because I would have looked forsomebody that I would have seen as a much stricterconstitutionalist," he said.
Huckabee said he was unwilling to second-guess the latepresident.
"I'm not going to come to the Reagan Library and say anything aboutRonald Reagan's decisions. I'm not that stupid," he said. "If Iwas, I'd have no business being president."
McCain praised O'Connor, a fellow Arizonan. But, he said, "thejudges I would appoint are along the lines of Justices [John]Roberts and [Samuel] Alito, who have a proven record of strictinterpretation of the Constitution." Romney added conservativestalwarts Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The debate opened with each candidate being asked a question thatechoed the one Reagan posed to voters en route to his firstelection: whether the nation was better off than when the lastpresident took office. Reagan was referring to Jimmy Carter,whereas moderator Cooper meant George W. Bush.
Romney tried to parry by discussing how Massachusetts changedduring his governorship -- for the better, he said -- until Cooperpressed him.
"I'm not running on President Bush's record; President Bush cantalk about his record," Romney said, then segued to his campaigntheme: "Washington is badly broken. I think we recognize that."
McCain said he was unleashing some "straight talk": "Things aretough right now." But he added that "I think we are better offoverall, if you look at the entire eight-year period."
Huckabee blamed a Congress that he said had "sat around on theirhands and done nothing but spend a lot of money."
It was left to Paul to close the matter with his characteristicbluntness.
"No, no, we're not better off. We're worse off," he said.