ABC News’s Bret Hovell reports: The war of words continued Saturday between Republican rivals Mitt Romney and John McCain over the issue of experience and judgment in the handling of the Iraq war.
It started Saturday morning in Ft. Myers, Florida, when McCain, the Arizona Senator, criticized Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, for having supported setting a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
"Governor 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."
"That is not the case, I’ve never said that," Romney responded from Lutz, FL, a few hours north of where McCain spoke. Romney said that McCain was "trying desperately to change the topic from the economy and trying to get back to Iraq."
The Romney position on timetables, which McCain said was similar to what Democrats supported, came from an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America in April of 2007.
"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," Romney told GMA’s Robin Roberts at the time. "But those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement."
But leading Democrats vying for their party’s nomination have been much more forceful and specific about the withdrawal timetable they would implement. Sen. Hillary Clinton has said she would start withdrawing troops within 60 days of taking office, Barack Obama has said all the troops would be out by the end of his first year in office.
Romney’s comments back in April did not go nearly that far, and he supports the current surge strategy that is in effect.
Romney called McCain’s comparison "dishonest."
"To say something that’s not accurate is simply wrong and he knows better," Romney said, as he called on McCain to apologize.
McCain’s team went into action formulating a response, which McCain delivered at his next stop in Sun City, FL.
"Now I understand that Governor Romney has changed his position again as he has on several other issues," McCain told a crowd at a town hall meeting. "But my friends, I was there. He said that he wanted a timetable for withdrawal that would have meant disaster."
Romney’s campaign called McCain’s words "stunningly false."
"This statement is especially egregious because Senator McCain knows in his heart that he is engaging in a blatant distortion towards a fellow Republican who is also committed to helping the men and women of our military achieve a successful result in Iraq," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.
The point counterpoint spanned several hours and a wide swath of the State of Florida, three days before the crucial primary here.
Throughout the next four hours, the McCain campaign released four different statements on Romney’s position on the war. In a written statement, McCain said Romney and others had been "hedging" their bets on the Iraq war with the statement he made on GMA, "positioning themselves politically by being deliberately vague on their support for General Petraeus’s new strategy."
"The fact is, like on so many other issues, Governor Romney has hedged, equivocated, ducked, and reversed himself," the statement read.
And the Romney campaign alerted the media that they would have one of their supporters, Ben Ginsberg, at McCain’s evening event to answer any questions about Romney’s record.
The battle for Florida may end Tuesday night, but yields to a fight over 22 states a week later, on Super Tuesday.