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A FEUD ATOP THE GOP POLLS

Romney and McCain Wage a Make-or-Break Battle

Sen. John McCain of Arizona answers questions during a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H. He has risen steadily in statewide polls and is now virtually tied with Mitt Romney among likely Republican primary voters.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona answers questions during a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H. He has risen steadily in statewide polls and is now virtually tied with Mitt Romney among likely Republican primary voters. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 5, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 4 -- Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona traded increasingly sharp barbs here Friday, setting in motion attack plans that were conceived as far back as last spring, fueled by the candidates' intense dislike for each other.

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"They are going to be very tough. There's not a tremendous affection, I think, between the two of them," said Terry Nelson, who managed McCain's campaign until quitting amid disarray early last summer. "You just don't hear the McCain camp talking about other candidates the way they talk about Mitt Romney."

Wounded at the hands of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Romney went on the offensive within hours of his arrival in New Hampshire, calling McCain a creature of the insider politics that Iowa voters rejected Thursday night by choosing Huckabee on the GOP side and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois on the Democratic side. The attack followed McCain's release of an Internet ad on Friday mocking Romney for saying that he would turn to lawyers and bureaucrats for foreign policy advice. "When it comes to leadership, John McCain doesn't have to call anyone," it says.

The political collision between Romney and McCain, which had been anticipated by both men for almost a year, has developed into a make-or-break contest that could reshape the Republican field. McCain, whose campaign nearly fell apart over the summer, has poured most of his time and attention since then into winning over voters in New Hampshire. Romney has also sought to make his mark here, spending millions of dollars to build an extensive campaign infrastructure and to purchase television advertising. The loser could effectively be eliminated from the Republican presidential contest.

For now, however, the contest appears up for grabs. McCain has risen steadily in statewide polls over the past month and is now virtually tied with Romney among likely Republican primary voters.

Huckabee, who is trailing in the polls here, vowed to capitalize on his Iowa victory by spending the next five days in New Hampshire instead of moving on to South Carolina, the site of the next major Republican primary. His top aides are hoping that another blockbuster debate performance on Saturday will improve his fourth-place standing in the Granite State.

On Friday, he held a rally in Henniker, shadowed by his star Hollywood endorser, Chuck Norris, and played bass guitar with a local band.

But the top campaign advisers of McCain and Romney are not expecting Huckabee to catch fire here. Instead, the two camps are focusing on each other.

That has been highlighted in the sharp-edged comments coming from the two sides in recent weeks, even as Romney battled Huckabee in Iowa. Just before Christmas, Mark Salter, senior adviser to McCain, responded to a Romney attack by saying, "He knows John McCain is gaining on him so he does what any small-varmint-gun-totin', civil-rights-marching, NRA-endorsed fantasy candidate would do: He questions someone else's credibility. New Hampshire is on to you, Mitt. Give it a rest. It's Christmas."

Both McCain and Romney have assailed the other's negativity, attempting to seize the moral high ground in a year when voters appear to be rewarding positive messages from presidential candidates. Three days before his nine-point win in Iowa, Huckabee very publicly decided not to air a negative ad against Romney, though he made sure reporters saw the ad before he shelved it.

"This is the John McCain we all saw in 2000," said one of Romney's top advisers, who worked on presidential campaigns eight years ago. "The 2000 guys know this sort of mean, nasty John McCain. And that's what those Web ads are."

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers issued a statement Friday morning saying, "After last night's debacle in Iowa, Mitt Romney is desperate and has now brought his angry, negative attacks to New Hampshire. In typical Mitt Romney fashion, his latest attack stands in direct opposition to his previous statements."


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