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McCain vs. Romney on Iraq

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Mitt Romney and John McCain sparred over their stances on the Iraq war at the final Republican primary debate at Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. Wednesday night. Video by CNN

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By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 31, 2008

SIMI VALLEY, Calif., Jan. 30 -- The Iraq war again emerged as a flash point between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a debate Wednesday, after McCain accused Romney of supporting timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops from the battlefield.

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In their final presidential debate before Republicans in 21 states vote Tuesday, McCain repeated a line of attack that helped propel him to victory in Florida's primary and he questioned Romney's foreign policy judgment, prompting an angry rebuttal from the former governor about McCain's use of misleading statements and "dirty tricks."

Romney insisted that he has "never, ever" backed a timetable for withdrawal, prompting McCain to shoot back, "Of course he supported a timetable." Romney called McCain's attacks "reprehensible" and said they amounted to "an attempt to do the Washington-style old politics."

The two bickered for most of the 90-minute debate, televised by CNN, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, aided by a format that did not limit their response time. The result was a freewheeling discussion that underscored the extent to which the GOP nomination battle has narrowed to a two-man contest.

Both men came into the debate itching for a fight. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) also took part in Wednesday evening's forum, sponsored by CNN, the Politico Web site and the Los Angeles Times.

The continued tension between Romney and McCain clearly frustrated the other two participants. "This isn't a two-man race," Huckabee said. "You want to talk conservative credentials? Let me get in on that." Later he begged the questioners to turn the "spigot" of questions back on for him and Paul.

The debate was a reprise of the nasty week of campaigning in Florida and offered a preview of the week to come, as McCain and Romney skip across the country, holding rallies in airport hangars instead of town hall meetings and airing television commercials in some of the nation's biggest cities.

In the opening minutes, Romney demonstrated how determined he is to blunt the momentum McCain gained in Florida. Answering the second question from moderator Anderson Cooper, he noted McCain's support for campaign finance reform and his sponsorship, along with Democrats, of legislation on immigration and energy that many Republicans opposed.

After calling McCain a "good Republican," he said that "those views are outside the mainstream of Republican conservative thought. . . . I'd also add that if you get endorsed by the New York Times, you're probably not a conservative."

That opened a door for McCain, who noted wryly that he had received endorsements from newspapers in Boston, Romney's home town.

"I'll guarantee the Arizona Republic will be endorsing me, my friend," McCain said with a grin.

He then lit into Romney's record as governor, leaving him on the defensive for the next 10 minutes as McCain accused him of raising fees and imposing a "government mandated" health-care system in Massachusetts.


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