John McCain and Mitt Romney carried their bitter Florida clash into California on Wednesday, each impugning the other's honesty in a hot-tempered debate as they sought to attract voters casting ballots in five days in a coast-to-coast array of primaries and caucuses.
McCain, caustic for much of the debate, castigated Romney for what
he said was a past insinuation that America should withdraw from
Iraq. McCain contrasted that with his own early support for the
"surge" of American troops that has reduced violence in some areas
of the country.
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 Reagan
Presidential Library near Simi Valley, but the former president's
famous adage that the GOP's "11th Commandment" precluded damaging
fellow Republicans appeared lost to history.
The testiest exchange stemmed from an ABC News interview last April
in which Romney, when asked, said that it was appropriate for
President Bush and Iraqi leaders to devise "timetables and
milestones" to measure progress in Iraq. In the closing days before
Florida's Tuesday primary, McCain wielded the comments as evidence
that Romney was ready to abandon Iraq.
The full quote included Romney's statement that such markers should
be private so they would not signal American intentions to the
enemy. Nevertheless, McCain insisted Wednesday that "timetables"
were code for retreat.
In reply, Romney said, "Let me make it absolutely clear again
tonight: I will not pull our troops out until we have brought
success in Iraq." He added that "raising it a few days before the
Florida primary, when there was very little time for me to correct
the record . . . sort of falls into the kind of dirty tricks that I
think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible."
"Governor, the right answer to that question was 'no,'" McCain
countered, referring to the ABC interview. " . . . 'Timetables' was
the buzzword for withdrawal."
McCain attempted to link Romney's comments on timetables to his
unrelated refusal, before his presidential campaign began, to state
a 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 the
animosity between the two: the millions of dollars in attack ads
that the former Massachusetts governor ran against Mike Huckabee in
Iowa 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 a
distinction between himself and Romney, a longtime businessman who
never served in the military. "I led the largest squadron in the
United 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 that
Later, when each was asked why Reagan would have endorsed him,
Romney said he -- and not McCain -- was part of the party's "heart
"Ronald Reagan would not approve of someone who changes their
positions depending on what the year is," McCain replied.
The tension between McCain and Romney, the two leading Republican
candidates, 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 two
other participants, were often left out.
"I didn't come here to umpire a ballgame between these two," an
irritated Huckabee said at one point, motioning to McCain and
Romney. "I came here to get a chance to swing at a few myself."
Accusations fly at Republican debate
The field narrowed, McCain and Romney trade angry charges in the last GOP face-off before Super Tuesday.
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