SARASOTA, Fla. - John McCain accused Mitt Romney of wanting to withdraw troops from Iraq, drawing immediate protest from his Republican presidential rival who said: "That's simply wrong and it's dishonest, and he should apologize."
The fight for Florida grew ever more intense Saturday ahead of the state's pivotal primary as a fairly civil debate over economic records and leadership credentials spiraled into an all-out showdown.
As the two candidates campaigned along the state's southwest coast, McCain sought the upper hand with a new line of criticism, telling reporters in Ft. Meyers about Iraq: "If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher."
Minutes earlier, the Arizona senator took a slap at Romney without naming him during a question-and-answer session with Floridians, saying: "Now, one of my opponents wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster."
Asked about the comment in Land O' Lakes, Romney balked. "That's dishonest, to say that I have a specific date. That's simply wrong," he said. "That is not the case. I've never said that."
"I know he's trying desperately to change the topic from the economy and trying to get back to Iraq, but to say something that's not accurate is simply wrong - and he knows better," the former Massachusetts governor said.
Campaigning later in Sun City, McCain took note of Romney's demand for an apology and said it is his GOP rival who should apologize to U.S. troops in Iraq "who are serving this nation in hard times and good" for his position.
By raising Iraq, McCain sought to shift the campaign in Florida back to his strength, national security, and away from Romney's, the economy. Aides portrayed McCain's Iraq comments as part of a broader effort in the coming days to question Romney's leadership, foreign policy experience and judgment.
While Romney has never set a public date for withdrawal, he has said that President Bush and Iraqi leaders should have private timetables and benchmarks with which to gauge progress on the war and determine troop levels. He has said publicly that he agrees with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, that U.S. troops could move to more of an oversight role in 2008.
McCain, for his part, has been a staunch supporter of the Iraq war and advocated more troops on the ground for years before Bush embraced that position last year and ramped up the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. The buildup helped curb violence in Iraq, and McCain has not been shy about claiming credit for the strategy's success.
The escalating tit-for-tat between McCain and Romney underscores the closeness of the race and the stakes for both. Recent polls show the two locked in a tight fight for the lead in a state that offers the winner a hefty 57 delegates to the GOP's nominating convention next summer and a shot of energy heading into a virtual national primary on Feb. 5.
A former venture capitalist and business consultant, Romney has spent the past week arguing that he is the Republican best able to right a troubled economy, given his 25-year record in the private sector. He's argued that McCain, who has spent much of his life in the military and in Congress, doesn't have the qualifications necessary to lead the country out of a potential recession.
"I don't think somebody from the inside is going to be able to turn Washington inside out," Romney said earlier Saturday in St. Petersburg - a shot at McCain, a four-term senator.
McCain, in turn, has sought to beat back Romney on the issue by arguing that a president needs to be ready to lead and qualified on both national security and economics, and he offers both - despite having previously acknowledged that the economy is not his strongest suit.
He also sought to rebut Romney's criticisms in an unusual fashion: he dispatched high-profile surrogates to talk with the press corps traveling with the former governor.
At the St. Petersburg event, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge offered to give an Associated Press reporter a ride to Romney's next appearance. At a later stop in Lakeland, another McCain surrogate, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, boarded the Romney press bus to repeat similar criticisms to reporters.
Elsewhere, two candidates trailing McCain and Romney in polls sought to gain ground.
In Sarasota, Rudy Giuliani argued that he is a perfect combination of the two - encompassing McCain's foreign policy strength and Romney's economic know-how. "I've had experience in both areas and results in both areas," the former New York mayor said after drawing a few hundred people to a restaurant on a town square.
Mike Huckabee toured a 1,600-acre, family-owned farm in Lake Whales and talked with local citrus growers about challenges facing them: hurricanes, crop diseases and the cost of labor. He also sampled barbecue and posed for pictures with supporters at the Lakeland Pig Fest.
Associated Press Writers Glen Johnson in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Libby Quaid in Fort Myers, Fla., contributed to this report.
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