John McCain ripped into Mitt Romney today, claiming his Republican presidential rival had wanted to set a timetable for an Iraqi withdrawal, and then rejected Romney's indignant denial and request for an apology.
McCain's roundhouse at Romney came in the final weekend before the crucial Florida GOP primary Tuesday where the two men are locked in a tight race. Bringing up the Iraq war appeared to be an attempt by McCain to bring the debate back to his political strength, national defense, at a time when the economy was becoming the dominant issue.
McCain fired his first salvo during a rally in Fort Myers, declaring, "Gov. Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal similar to what the Democrats are seeking, which would have led to a victory by al Qaeda in my view."
"If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Sen. [Hillary] Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Gov. Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher," he said.
When asked about McCain's claim while speaking with reporters in Lutz, a clearly irked Romney said McCain was being "dishonest."
"To say that I have a specific date is simply wrong and is dishonest, and he should apologize," Romney argued.
"That is not the case. I've never said that," Romney said emphatically, arguing McCain was "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."
McCain was in no mood to apologize. At a Sun City, campaigning stop later in the day, he said Romney is the one who should apologize.
"Gov. Romney last April said he believed we should set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. My friend, when he suggested that, Gen. [David] Petraeus's new [surge] strategy in Iraq was just beginning," McCain said.
"Now I understand that Gov. Romney has changed his position again as he has on several other issues. But my friends, I was there. He said that he wanted a timetable for withdrawal. That would have meant disaster. That would have meant that al Qaeda would not be telling the world that they defeated the United States of America," he said.
Rebuffing any suggestion that he apologize, McCain said it was Romney who should apologize.
"I think the apology is owed to the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, that we will not let them down in hard times or good," he said.
During the early days of the "surge" offensive in Iraq, Romney was vocal in his support of the tactic, although he allowed that the country must be prepared for the possibility that it could fail.
During an appearance on "Good Morning America" April 3, 2007, Romney did express support for private benchmarks and timetables.
When asked by ABC News' Robin Roberts on "GMA" if he believes there should be a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, Romney replied, "Well, there's no question that the president and 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."
Romney has also previously stated he expected a move to a support role in Iraq in 2008. At an event in New Hampshire in September, Romney said, "I think you're going to find sometime in '08 that by virtue of success of the surge militarily, we'll be able to move to the support role."
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 Wales 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.
Ursula Fahy and Matt Stuart and The Associated Press contributed to this report