Mitt Romney accused John McCain of using dirty tricks by suggesting the former Massachusetts governor wanted a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. The exchange between the two came in the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night.
Click on the video player to watch CBN News' David Brody's report and Pat Robertson's comments on the current status of the Republican campaign.
The site of the debate was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. It came just six days before more than 20 states hold primaries or caucuses that may determine who will succeed President Bush.
The debate was held just one day following the Florida primary where McCain emerged the victor.
The exchange also showed the intensity of their rivalry for the nation's top job as Commander-in-Chief.
Romney relayed his frustrations over McCain's claims from last weekend.
"I have never, ever supported a specific timetable" for withdrawing troops, Romney said. McCain's accusation on the eve of Tuesday's primary, he said, "sort of falls into the dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible."
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McCain said "of course he said he wanted a timetable" for a withdrawal. McCain had made the allegation in Florida. Political analysts believe it was an effort by the Arizona senator to try to shift the focus of the debate from the ailing economy. The economy has proved to be a stronger issue for Romney, who is a former venture capitalist and businessman.
Last April, Romney said U.S. and Iraqi leaders "have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about" in private.
In Wednesday's debate, Romney said he was not calling for a specific withdrawal date. "It's simply wrong, and the senator knows it," he said. "I will not pull our troops out until we have brought success in Iraq."
For an hour and a half, Romney and McCain challenged each other's conservative credentials as well as their ability to lead. However, they remained civil, each calling the other "a fine man."
Romney tried to portray McCain, who performs well among political Independents, as out of the conservative mainstream as the contest moves toward a cluster of states where only registered Republicans can vote. He said the Arizona senator twice voted against Bush's tax cuts and pushed campaign finance reforms that restricted fundraising and spending. The Republican establishment embraced the tax cuts and opposed the new campaign law, which many saw as helpful to Democrats.
"Those views are outside the view of mainstream Republican thought," Romney said. He made similar arguments in Florida, but lost to McCain by five percentage points.
McCain disputed the claims. "I'm proud of my conservative record," he said.
In a counterpunch, he said Romney left Massachusetts with high taxes and a large debt. "His job creation was the third worst in the country," McCain said, a claim Romney rejected.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also participated in the debate televised by CNN. The two mostly watched as the two front-runners, who were seated next to each other, traded barbs. Huckabee protested, "this isn't a two-man race."
"If you want to talk conservative credentials, let me get in on that," said Huckabee, who has not won a primary since the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.
Paul reiterated his criticisms of the Iraq war and U.S. monetary policies.
California Governor to Endorse McCain
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will endorse McCain Thursday. Schwarzenegger was in the audience, as was Nancy Reagan, widow of the former President.
McCain tried to deflect questions on illegal immigration, a sore point with many Republicans who resented his push for a Senate bill, ultimately unsuccessful, that would have granted a path to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants now in the country.
Asked if he would vote for his bill now, McCain replied, "it won't" come to a vote "because people want the borders secured first." He said he supports new efforts to prevent illegal crossings.
California is one of several states voting on Tuesday that has a large immigrant population.
Source: Associated Press