McCain, Romney Duel as Giuliani Leads
Thursday, May 17, 2007
A feud that has been brewing quietly for months burst into the open Tuesday night as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona clashed sharply in a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina.
With former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani emerging as the leader in national polls, McCain and Romney -- who see each other as the biggest obstacle in their respective paths to the GOP nomination -- have remained largely fixed on one another. On Tuesday night, the bad blood between the two broke into public view with an exchange over who is the more consistent conservative.
Their war of words continued yesterday as the Republicans broke camp in South Carolina and headed back to the campaign trail. "We'd like nothing better than for all the campaigns to run on their positive agendas for the future," said John Weaver, McCain's chief strategist. "Governor Romney and his Boston advisers believe they can't win with that. So be it. But if they think they can misrepresent John McCain's record with impunity, then they'd better buckle up their chinstraps."
Alex Castellanos, Romney's media adviser, was more restrained but made clear his camp is prepared to wield equally sharp elbows in the months ahead.
Also, he said, "The more [voters] look at these top three guys as presidential contenders, the more they will look at the differences between them. The only thing better than a little Mitt Romney is a lot of Mitt Romney."
Giuliani may have had the single best moment of the debate, according to many GOP strategists, with a spontaneous rebuke of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas over what caused the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that drew a chorus of applause from the audience and reinforced his message as the "tough on terror" candidate.
He also navigated the treacherous abortion issue more deftly than in the first debate two weeks ago. But in the estimation of the McCain and Romney camps, Giuliani's position in support of abortion rights makes his path to the nomination the most difficult among the three leading candidates -- a hurdle they regard as virtually insurmountable.
"I think Rudy still didn't fix his structural problem," said one Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss strategy. "He hit a ball over the fence, but he didn't fix his structural problem. A good hunk of the Republican Party doesn't think he's a Republican."
Giuliani advisers strongly disagree that the former mayor's abortion stance will prevent him from winning Republican primaries, and in their view, McCain and Romney are essentially competing for the right to oppose him one-on-one. Addressing the assessment of the McCain and Romney camps, campaign manager Mike DuHaime said yesterday, "People have said that [abortion] is an impediment since Rudy got into the race. Since he got in, we've done nothing but lead in the polls."
Still, McCain and Romney have been circling one another warily for months while paying less attention to Giuliani. They have competed vigorously for endorsements, campaign talent, positioning and money. McCain's underlying assumption has been that Romney, though he has often struggled to get out of single digits in national polls, poses a potentially serious threat. The Romney camp has long regarded McCain as a formidable rival.
That may explain why McCain was so sharp-tongued in the debate after Romney accused him of co-sponsoring, with Democrats, campaign finance and immigration reform legislation that departs radically from conservative principles. "My fear," Romney said, "is that [the] McCain-Kennedy [legislation] would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad."
McCain responded with an attack on Romney for flip-flopping and political opportunism. "I take and kept a consistent position on campaign finance reform," he said. "Is there anyone who believes there's not enough money washing around, money in politics, which has corrupted our own party?"
He then added, "I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for."
Since he ran for governor in 2002 as a supporter of abortion rights, Romney has changed his position and now describes himself as an ardent opponent of abortion. "Governor Romney has moved in the right direction on the issue of life," spokesman Kevin Madden said yesterday.
To Romney's advisers, McCain is, if anything, more vulnerable to the charge of changing his positions for political convenience, citing his shifting views on President Bush's tax cuts and on ethanol.
In the estimation of a number of GOP strategists, McCain delivered the most solid overall performance. McCain characterized himself as a defender of Bush's Iraq policy and as long opposed to abortion, but also as someone willing to seek bipartisan agreement and principled in his opposition to any form of torture in dealing with potential terrorism detainees, which put him at odds with his rivals.
Giuliani, who stumbled over abortion in the first debate, was more focused in South Carolina, delivering conservative messages on terrorism and economic policy. He emphasized his desire to reduce the number of abortions, even while defending the right of women to make their own decisions.
The rest of the 10-person field struggled to gain recognition, but one of them did raise his profile successfully. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee got a good laugh at the expense of Democratic candidate John Edwards and his $400 haircuts and delivered a telling critique of Giuliani's abortion views.