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Romney, McCain Trade Blows at GOP Debate

The Republican presidential hopefuls debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., one week before the California primaries on Feb. 5.
David McNew
Getty Images
The Republican presidential hopefuls debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., one week before the California primaries on Feb. 5.

Sharp exchanges over Iraq and the candidates' campaign tactics spiced a tense debate Wednesday between the main rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.

The GOP contest is shaping up as a battle between Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who dominated the action at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were also on the stage, but struggled to be heard as McCain — the new front-runner — fended off an aggressive assault by Romney.


Missing from the last GOP debate before voters in more than 20 states head to the polls on Feb. 5 was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He dropped out of the race earlier Wednesday and endorsed McCain, who emerged from Tuesday's Florida primary with new momentum.

Romney wasted no time laying out his argument against McCain, branding his rival as "outside the mainstream of Republican conservative thought."

Noting that McCain had been endorsed by The New York Times, Romney said: "If you get endorsed by the New York Times, you're probably not a conservative."

"Let me note that I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers, who know you best, including the very conservative Boston Herald," McCain shot back, adding: "Let me just say I'm proud of my conservative record. It's one of reaching across the aisle to get things done for Americans ..."

McCain took aim at Romney's record as governor, accusing him of raising taxes by $730 million in Massachusetts.


Huckabee, who has not been able to duplicate his early win in the Iowa caucuses anywhere else, struggled to get a word in edgewise.

"I want to make sure everybody understands this isn't a two-man race," Huckabee said. "There's another guy who would like to say down here on the far right of the stage. You want to talk conservative credentials? Let me get in on that ... I believe in smaller government, lower taxes."

Now that McCain has a good shot at the nomination — something few believed a few months ago — he is working hard to unify the party and blunt some of the intense anger from conservative Republicans.

He has a new approach — if not a new policy — on immigration, vowing to "secure the borders first" before pursuing comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The exchanges between McCain and Romney were heated. McCain repeated an accusation he had used effectively against Romney in Florida, saying Romney had once favored a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Romney called that a dirty trick, saying that while he did suggest that President Bush and Iraqi leaders discuss the issue privately, he had never called for a timetable to withdraw troops.

"It's an attempt to do the Washington-style old politics," Romney said of McCain's allegation. "Lay a charge out there regardless of whether it's true or not. Don't check it, don't talk to the other candidate, just throw it out there. Get it in the media, in the stream. There's not a single media source that I've seen that hasn't said it was reprehensible. Even The New York Times said it was wrong ... It's simply wrong and the senator knows it."

McCain didn't back off, but merely switched to a broader attack, saying that while he was staking his political career on Iraq, Romney was hedging his bets. And he blamed Romney for the negative tenor of the campaign.

McCain said that Huckabee could "attest" to "the millions of dollars of attack ads and negative ads" Romney "leveled against him in Iowa." He said Romney had also spent millions on "attack ads" against McCain in New Hampshire and beyond.

"A lot of it's your own money," McCain said. "You're free to do with it what you want to, you can spend it all. But the fact is that your negative ads ... have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign."

McCain is expected to receive another important endorsement Thursday. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is expected to offer his support at an event in Los Angeles.

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