McCain, Romney dominate bruising GOP debate

Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney angrily fought for conservative support Wednesday, as Romney accused the Arizona senator of "dirty tricks" while front-runner McCain said his rival lacked "the experience and the judgment" to be commander in chief.

A day after McCain seized the lead for the Republican nomination in Florida, the White House contenders continued their sparring at a debate inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library here.

The two rivals, along with candidates Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, repeatedly invoked Reagan's name as they tried to establish themselves as heir to the late president's conservative legacy.

The debate came just days before California, New York and 20 other states hold a critical set of primaries and caucuses next week.

The candidates said they believe they would have been supported by Reagan, who got his political start as California governor. But only McCain will receive the backing of the current state executive: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will endorse him at an event in Los Angeles today, said campaign adviser Steve Schmidt.

The Iraq war was the biggest source of dispute at Wednesday's debate.

Romney accused McCain of misrepresenting his position on the Iraq war in the days leading to Florida's primary, calling it "the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible."

The former Massachusetts governor lashed out: "How is it that you're the expert on my position?"

McCain stuck by his contention that Romney supported a fixed timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops during a TV interview last year. He added that Romney is not ready to be president at a time when the United States is battling radical Islamic extremists. "I will continue to raise" the point, he said.

Throughout the 90-minute debate, McCain and Romney traded so many blows they left little room for former Arkansas governor Huckabee or Texas congressman Paul to be heard.

Paul chided the two contenders for arguing over "technicalities of a policy they both agree with." He once again called for immediate U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq — a position that has set him apart from the once-crowded GOP field.

Huckabee, who argued he has conservative credentials, repeatedly complained about the time given to McCain and Romney. "I didn't come here to umpire a ballgame between these two."

From the debate's opening moments, Romney sought to portray McCain as "outside the mainstream of Republican conservative thought." Some examples he cited: McCain's championing of campaign-finance restrictions that banned unlimited donations known as "soft money" and work with liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy on "guest worker" programs for illegal immigrants.

In response, McCain said he was "proud of my conservative record. … It's one of reaching across the aisle to get things done for Americans."

He hit Romney for raising fees and imposing a health care plan while he was governor. Romney said he hiked certain fees to cover a budget shortfall and accused McCain of misstating the amount.

"Let me help you with the facts here, senator," Romney said, ticking off his rebuttal list.

On the subject of experience, Romney repeated his view that his work in the private sector gives him leadership experience, McCain's more than two decades in Congress render him unfamiliar to address the slumping economy.

McCain, a former Navy pilot first elected to Congress in 1982, said business experience does not prepare someone to handle issues of war and foreign policy. "We're in a time in our history where you can't afford any on-the-job training," he said.

The debate was sponsored by CNN, Politico and the Los Angeles Times. Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama face off tonight in Los Angeles.