Republicans spar over Iraq war ahead of Fla. primary

Published: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 5:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 5:03 p.m.

SARASOTA, Fla. John McCain accused Mitt Romney Saturday of wanting to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, drawing an immediate protest from his Republican presidential rival, who said: "That's simply wrong and it's dishonest, and he should apologize."

McCain countered: "I think 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."

The Arizona senator stood before a crowd in Sun City, Fla., and said he was quoting Romney as favoring a "timetable for withdrawal." However, quotes circulated by McCain's campaign didn't show Romney making that comment.

"Clearly, the impression was that he was ready to set a date for withdrawal. You can't read it any other way," McCain explained.

The exchange highlighted the growing intensity of the race in Florida in the final weekend before Tuesday's primary, a campaign that previously had been a fairly civil debate over economic records and leadership credentials.

By raising Iraq, McCain sought to shift the campaign in Florida back to his strength, national security, and away from Romney's, the economy. Aides portrayed McCain's Iraq comments as part of a broader effort in the coming days to question Romney's leadership, foreign policy experience and judgment.

Speaking in Fort Myers, Fla., McCain said of Iraq: "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."

Minutes earlier, the Arizona senator took a slap at Romney without naming him during a question-and-answer session with Floridians, saying: "Now, one of my opponents wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster."

Asked about the comment in Land O' Lakes, Fla., Romney bristled.

"That's dishonest, to say that I have a specific date. That's simply wrong," he said. "That is not the case. I've never said that."

The former Massachusetts governor added: "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."

During the campaign stop later in Sun City, McCain clipped three words from a quotation of Romney's last April, saying the former Massachusetts believed the country should set a "timetable for withdrawal."

In an interview with ABC News last April, Romney never uttered those words but said: "There's no question that the president and (Iraqi) Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone."

Romney aides labeled McCain's charge "stunningly false" in an e-mail to campaign reporters.

In addition to saying that President Bush and Iraqi leaders should have private timetables and benchmarks with which to gauge progress on the war and determine troop levels, Romney has also said he agrees with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, that U.S. troops could move to more of an oversight role in 2008.

McCain, for his part, has been a staunch supporter of the Iraq war and advocated more troops on the ground for years before Bush embraced that position last year and ramped up the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. The buildup helped curb violence in Iraq, and McCain has not been shy about claiming credit for the strategy's success.

The escalating tit-for-tat between McCain and Romney underscores the closeness of the race and the stakes for both. Recent polls show the two locked in a tight fight for the lead in a state that offers the winner a hefty 57 delegates to the GOP's nominating convention next summer and a shot of energy heading into a virtual national primary on Feb. 5.

A former venture capitalist and business consultant, Romney has spent the past week arguing that he is the Republican best able to right a troubled economy given his 25-year record in the private sector.

McCain, in turn, has sought to beat back Romney on the issue by arguing that a president needs to be ready to lead and qualified on both national security and economics, and he offers both despite having previously acknowledged that the economy is not his strongest suit.

Elsewhere, two candidates trailing McCain and Romney in polls sought to gain ground.

In Sarasota, Rudy Giuliani argued that he is a perfect combination of the two encompassing McCain's foreign policy strength and Romney's economic know-how. "I've had experience in both areas and results in both areas," the former New York mayor said after drawing a few hundred people to a restaurant on a town square.

Mike Huckabee toured a 1,600-acre, family-owned farm in Lake Whales and talked with local citrus growers about challenges facing them: hurricanes, crop diseases and the cost of labor. He also sampled barbecue and posed for pictures with supporters at the Lakeland Pig Fest.

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