SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – Republican Mitt Romney accused John McCain of using dirty tricks by suggesting the former Massachusetts governor wanted a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, in a spirited debate Wednesday night that underscored the intensity of their presidential rivalry.
Coming 24 hours after McCain defeated him in Florida, Romney vented his frustrations over the Arizona senator’s claims from last weekend.
“I have never, ever supported a specific timetable” for withdrawing troops, Romney said. McCain’s accusation on the eve of Tuesday’s primary, he said, “sort of falls into the dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible.”
The debate was held in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., six days before more than 20 states hold primaries or caucuses that could make either McCain or Romney the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination.
McCain stuck to his guns, saying, “of course he said he wanted a timetable” for a withdrawal. McCain had made the allegation in Florida as he tried to shift the debate from the ailing economy, a stronger issue for Romney, a former venture capitalist and businessman.
Last April, Romney said U.S. and Iraqi leaders “have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about” in private.
In Wednesday’s debate, Romney said he was not calling for a specific withdrawal date. “It’s simply wrong, and the senator knows it,” he said. “I will not pull our troops out until we have brought success in Iraq.”
For 90 minutes, Romney and McCain sharply challenged each other’s conservative credentials and ability to lead the country. But they generally remained civil, and each called the other “a fine man.”
The debate allowed McCain and Romney to focus on one another after Florida voters left little doubt that they are the party’s strongest contenders. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani left the race earlier Wednesday and endorsed McCain.
During the debate, the Associated Press reported that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would endorse McCain today.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also participated in the debate televised by CNN, but largely watched as the two front-runners, who were seated next to each other, traded barbs. Huckabee protested, “this isn’t a two-man race.”
Paul reiterated his criticisms of the Iraq war and U.S. monetary policies.