In Fla., McCain and Romney Argue About Iraq

By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 27, 2008

SARASOTA, Fla., Jan. 26 -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona accused former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney of having once supported a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, sparking an angry demand for an apology from Romney, who called the statement "dishonest."

Both Republicans abandoned all pretense of civility as they campaigned across central Florida in advance of the state's primary Tuesday. Recent polls show a dead heat between McCain and Romney, and the winner here will gain a huge advantage as the nomination fight moves to 21 states a week later.

Stumping in Fort Myers on Saturday, McCain went on the attack first, linking Romney with Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.): "If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher."

He added to reporters that "one of my opponents wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster."

Romney, who said in April that the military should consider a "private timetable" but not public deadlines, shot back: "That's dishonest, to say that I have a specific date. That's simply wrong. . . . I know he's trying desperately to change the topic from the economy and trying to get back to Iraq, but to say something that's not accurate is simply wrong, and he knows better."

Later, Romney added that McCain's comment on Iraq is "simply wrong and it's dishonest, and he should apologize."

The heightened tension between the two men represented a climax of sorts that has been building for months as they sparred for advantage in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina. While other candidates have been in that mix, the constant has been a battle between Romney and McCain -- two men who have not become friends on the trail.

McCain received a big boost last night when Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is extremely popular among GOP voters in Florida, endorsed him.

McCain not only refused to apologize to Romney yesterday, but at his next campaign appearance McCain lashed out at his rival, saying: "The apology is owed to the young men and women serving this nation in uniform, that we will not let them down in hard times or good. That is who the apology is owed to."

His campaign then issued a statement in which McCain said that Romney may have changed his mind on the idea of a buildup of troops in Iraq but that "the fact is, like on so many other issues, Governor Romney has hedged, equivocated, ducked and reversed himself."

Asked why he was bringing up Romney's quotes nearly a year after he made them, McCain replied, "I've been criticizing him for months." He added that it makes sense to highlight them in Florida, noting: "I'm in a state that has enormous military involvement. I'm trying to convince them that I'm best qualified to be commander in chief."

McCain's support for the surge of troops in Iraq nearly doomed his campaign early last year, but his decision to stand by it helped revive his White House bid when fortunes in Iraq improved. The leading GOP candidates have all sought to emphasize their support for the Iraq war as polls show that a large majority of Republicans support it.

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