Sparks Fly Between Romney and McCain Over Iraq

John McCain came into the debate riding a wave of support.

January 8, 2009, 12:13 AM

SIMI VALLEY, Calif., Jan. 30, 2008— -- John McCain's solidified frontrunner status didn't cause him to let up on taking the fight to Mitt Romney during the debate tonight at the Reagan Presidential Library.

The genuine dislike that has apparently developed over the last year between the remaining two serious contenders for the Republican presidential nomination was on display during their final debate before Super Tuesday, when Republicans will go to the polls in 21 states.

However, a senior adviser to one of the top campaigns suggested the sour tone on stage might be attributed to having a debate the night following a critical primary.

McCain came into the debate riding a wave of good news after his Florida victory on Tuesday. The Arizona senator entered the Reagan library complex with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to accept his endorsement. Giuliani ended his candidacy for the White House and threw his support to McCain -- instead of taking a seat on the debate stage, as he had planned before he came in a devastating distant third in Florida.

And on Thursday, McCain is expected to put another feather in his cap when he picks up the endorsement of movie star turned California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The endorsement allows McCain to soak up another day of free media attention while both Romney and McCain determine if, where, and when to advertise on television before Super Tuesday.

Iraq, immigration, and taxes were the dominant flash points between Romney and McCain.

The former Massachusetts governor continued to bash McCain for voting against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. McCain further distanced himself from the failed immigration reform bill he co-wrote with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. When CNN's Anderson Cooper asked him whether he would vote for that bill if it came up in the Senate again, McCain said he would not and seemed reluctant even to accept the premise.

However, it was Iraq that caused the most heated moment (heated being a relative term) when McCain once again tried to twist Romney's words to "Good Morning America" in April 2007 when he was asked if President Bush and the Iraqi government should have timetables for an American withdrawal from Iraq.

"Is it not fair — is it not fair to have the person who's being accused of having a position he doesn't have be the expert on what his position is? How is it that you're the expert on my position, when my position has been very clear?" Romney asked indignantly.

"I'm the expert. I'm the expert on this," McCain shot back.

Romney later came back to the issue to say he specifically does not support any timetables for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

"I will not leave Iraq until we have secured Iraq, make sure it will never become a safe haven," he said.

In Florida this past weekend, McCain successfully drew Romney into this debate over Iraq, an issue that plays to McCain's strengths.

Romney took the bait initially, but then spent the next day in Florida pivoting back to the economy as his main issue.

Even with a contentious argument about timetables and McCain's taking Romney's words out of context, it is still a good night for the Arizona senator if Iraq is the dominant issue coming out of a debate.

Romney, in his desire to set the record straight, once again allowed McCain to set the terms of the debate on an issue he overwhelmingly wins.

"It's astounding that McCain insists repeating something that is false," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden told ABC News.

Both candidates are likely looking forward to not having to share another debate stage before what may prove to be a decisive Super Tuesday.

ABC News' John Berman contributed to this report.

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