McCain vs. Romney on Iraq
Republicans’ Four-Man Debate Dominated by Two
SIMI VALLEY, Calif., Jan. 30 — The Iraq war again emerged as a flash point between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a debate Wednesday, after McCain accused Romney of supporting timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops from the battlefield.
In their final presidential debate before Republicans in 21 states vote Tuesday, McCain repeated a line of attack that helped propel him to victory in Florida’s primary and he questioned Romney’s foreign policy judgment, prompting an angry rebuttal from the former governor about McCain’s use of misleading statements and “dirty tricks.”
Romney insisted that he has “never, ever” backed a timetable for withdrawal, prompting McCain to shoot back, “Of course he supported a timetable.” Romney called McCain’s attacks “reprehensible” and said they amounted to “an attempt to do the Washington-style old politics.”
The two bickered for most of the 90-
minute debate, televised by CNN, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, aided by a format that did not limit their response time. The result was a freewheeling discussion that underscored the extent to which the GOP nomination battle has narrowed to a two-man contest.
Both men came into the debate itching for a fight. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) also took part in Wednesday evening’s forum, sponsored by CNN, the PoliticoWeb site and the Los Angeles Times.
The continued tension between Romney and McCain clearly frustrated the other two participants. “This isn’t a two-man race,” Huckabee said. “You want to talk conservative credentials? Let me get in on that.” Later he begged the questioners to turn the “spigot” of questions back on for him and Paul.
The debate was a reprise of the nasty week of campaigning in Florida and offered a preview of the week to come, as McCain and Romney skip across the country, holding rallies in airport hangars instead of town hall meetings and airing television commercials in some of the nation’s biggest cities.
In the opening minutes, Romney demonstrated how determined he is to blunt the momentum McCain gained in Florida. Answering the second question from moderator Anderson Cooper, he noted McCain’s support for campaign finance reform and his sponsorship, along with Democrats, of legislation on immigration and energy that many Republicans opposed.
After calling McCain a “good Republican,” he said that “those views are outside the mainstream of Republican conservative thought. . . . I’d also add that if you get endorsed by the New York Times, you’re probably not a conservative.”
That opened a door for McCain, who noted wryly that he had received endorsements from newspapers in Boston, Romney’s home town.
“I’ll guarantee the Arizona Republic will be endorsing me, my friend,” McCain said with a grin.
He then lit into Romney’s record as governor, leaving him on the defensive for the next 10 minutes as McCain accused him of raising fees and imposing a “government mandated” health-care system in Massachusetts.
“He raised taxes by $730 mil- lion,” McCain alleged. “He called them fees. I’m sure the people that had to pay it, whether they called them bananas, they still had to pay $730 million extra.”
He also accused Romney of “saddling” Massachusetts with $240 million in debt related to the new health-care system.
The charges forced Romney into a long defense of his gubernatorial record. “Okay, I’ve got a little work to do,” he said. “Let me help you with the facts, Senator.”
Romney challenged the studies that McCain based his criticisms on and said he raised fees by $240 million, not $730 million, as part of an effort to close a $3 billion budget shortfall without raising broadbased taxes. And he said he left the state with a surplus, not a deficit.
On health care, he said, “a lot of people talk about health care. I’m the only one who got the job done.”
Huckabee, in his rare moments in the spotlight, touted his 101⁄ years as governor of Arkansas, saying that he balanced the state’s budget annually and supported amendments to protect human life and marriage.
“I believe in less government,” he said. “I believe in lower taxes, not higher.”
When asked whether he would still support expanding the I-95 between Bangor, Maine, and Miami to help stimulate the economy, Huckabee quipped that he would change the location of his proposal now that the presidential primary battleground has shifted.
“I said that when I was in Florida,” he said, referring to the location of Tuesday’s primary. “Today we might look at a western highway that would go down the California coast.”
Paul had few opportunities in the first half of the debate. He answered a question about the state of the nation’s economy by saying that “we’re not better off, we’re worse off,” blaming that on an flawed monetary system and a foreign policy that is bankrupting the country.
“The standard of living is going down today,” Paul said. “It’s going down and the middle class is hurting.”
The debate opened with Cooper asking the participants to assess the nation’s economic well-being by using the measurement that President Ronald Reagan once did: Are we better off economically than we were eight years ago?
The candidates all struggled to express their sense of gloom about the country without blaming President Bush for his stewardship.
“Let’s not blame President Bush on this,” Huckabee said.
“This president did pull us out of a deep recession,” Romney said.
Later, when asked whether they would have, like Reagan, appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor even though her appointment and later rulings angered abortion opponents, neither Huckabee nor McCain was willing to criticize the late president. Huckabee said it would be “stupid” to question Reagan’s decisions as a guest in the Reagan Library, while McCain praised O’Connor and said he would appoint Supreme Court justices like John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., “who have a proven record of strict interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Romney, however, made a veiled criticism of Reagan by saying: “I like justices that follow the Constitution, do not make law from the bench. I would have much rather had a justice of that nature.”
Seated in front of a plane that President Ronald Reagan used were, from left, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, John McCain and Mitt Romney, who participated in a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The forum was moderated...
McCain, right, tries to move past Romney after their acrimonious 90-minute debate.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan talks with Cooper before the forum, the last Republican debate before Tuesday, when 21 states will hold GOP contests.