McCain vs. Rom­ney on Iraq

Repub­li­cans’ Four-Man De­bate Dom­i­nated by Two

The Washington Post - - Front Page - By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin

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.”

BY MARK TER­RILL — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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...

BY MARK J. TER­RILL — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

McCain, right, tries to move past Rom­ney af­ter their ac­ri­mo­nious 90-minute de­bate.

BY JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN — GETTY IMAGES

For­mer first lady Nancy Rea­gan talks with Cooper be­fore the fo­rum, the last Repub­li­can de­bate be­fore Tues­day, when 21 states will hold GOP con­tests.

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