Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney accused rival John McCain of dirty tricks during a lively debate Wednesday evening. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the Republican candidates squared off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, each invoking the legacy of the late president.
With the former presidential aircraft, Air Force One, as a backdrop, Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and John McCain engaged in a spirited exchange over the question of whether Romney had supported a public deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. President Bush and Senator McCain have rejected a deadline, which they say would hurt the effort of U.S. troops and undercut the Iraqi government.
Romney said he has never supported a deadline, and he asked why McCain raised the issue just days before the Florida primary. McCain won the Florida contest Tuesday by five percentage points.
"It's an attempt to do the Washington-style old politics, which is lay a charge out there, regardless of whether it's true or not. Don't check. Don't talk to the other candidate. Just throw it out there," he said.
Romney said he wanted U.S. and Iraqi leaders to discuss timetables and milestones privately, and will not support a troop withdrawal until Iraq is secure. He said McCain was using the kind of dirty tricks that Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Texas congressman Ron Paul also took part in the debate, which was broadcast on CNN. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who dropped out of the race Wednesday and endorsed John McCain, did not take part.
McCain complained that he and Huckabee were the target of unfair attacks by Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and millionaire businessman, in televisions ads in earlier state contests.
"As far as Washington politics is concerned, I think my friend Governor Huckabee, sir, will attest, the millions of dollars of attack ads and negative ads you leveled against him in Iowa, the millions of dollars of attack ads you attacked against me in New Hampshire, and have ever since. A lot of it's your own money, you're free to do with what you want to. You can spend it all," he said.
Congressman Ron Paul, a vocal opponent of the war and advocate of limited government, criticized the others for supporting continued spending in Iraq.
He said "The dollar is crashing and you're talking about these technicalities about who said what, when?"
McCain and Romney each questioned the other's commitment to conservative goals such as cutting taxes, ideas once championed by President Reagan. Each of the candidates was asked whether the late president would endorse him. Mike Huckabee turned the question around.
"I'm not going to pretend he would endorse me. I wish he would. I'd love that. But I endorse him," he said.
Huckabee said the former president inspired the country.
Mr. Reagan's widow, Nancy, was in the audience, along with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. News reports Wednesday said Schwarzenegger plans to endorse John McCain Thursday, giving another boost to the Arizona senator's campaign.
Wednesday's debate comes six days before Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states, including California, will hold primaries or caucuses that could position either McCain or Romney as a clear frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.