ABC News’ Bret Hovell reports: In what may be the harshest attack yet in the race for the 2008 Republican nomination, Sen. John McCain insinuated that rival Gov. Mitt Romney is conning New Hampshire voters when he implies that he is the "real Republican" in the race.
"I don’t usually do this," McCain began, citing comments Romney had made yesterday at a stop in Sparks, Nevada, that he spoke for the Republican wing of the Republican party. McCain went on to list several facets of Romney’s record that he said indicated Romney’s more liberal tendencies.
"So you’ll understand why I’m a little perplexed when Mitt Romney now suggests that he’s a better Republican than me, or that he speaks for the Republican wing of the Republican party," McCain told a meeting of the New Hampshire GOP.
"You might not agree with me on every issue, but I think you know, I won’t con you," McCain said. "The most important thing we have in this life is our self respect. And I’m not going to trade mine for anybody’s vote for any office."
Romney’s campaign fired back, arguing that Romney’s record does speak to Republican voters.
"It’s truly unfortunate that at an event designed to bring the Republican party together, Senator McCain chose, instead, to break Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment in an attempt to divide us," said Craig Stevens, Romney’s press secretary in New Hampshire.
The campaign of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani entered the fray on Romney’s comments as well, calling them "one of those moments where you sit back and just say ‘huh?’"
"We already know Mitt will say anything but at some point all the millions in the world won’t help his latest attempt at re-branding," Giuliani communications director Katie Levinson said.
Speaking with reporters after the GOP meeting, McCain was asked directly if he thought Romney was trying to con New Hampshire voters.
"No, but it’s very clear he’s changed his positions on almost every major issue in his various campaigns," McCain said.
"I’ve been a person who has tried to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan," he said. "It makes one a bit frustrated to hear someone of his record say that he’s the only real Republican."
That frustration may have been building for some time. Top McCain aides say that Romney’s comments yesterday rubbed the Senator the wrong way, that he was anxious to respond, and that there will be more to come.
John Berman, Jake Tapper and Matt Stuart contributed to this report.