McCain, caustic for much of the debate, castigated Romney for what he said was a past insinuation that America should withdraw from Iraq. McCain contrasted that with his own early support for the "surge" of American troops that has reduced violence in some areas of the country.
in a 90-minute debate sponsored by The Times, CNN and Politico; a Democratic debate will be held in Los Angeles tonight.
Wednesday's gathering may have been held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley, but the former president's famous adage that the GOP's "11th Commandment" precluded damaging fellow Republicans appeared lost to history.
The testiest exchange stemmed from an ABC News interview last April in which Romney, when asked, said that it was appropriate for President Bush and Iraqi leaders to devise "timetables and milestones" to measure progress in Iraq. In the closing days before Florida's Tuesday primary, McCain wielded the comments as evidence that Romney was ready to abandon Iraq.
The full quote included Romney's statement that such markers should be private so they would not signal American intentions to the enemy. Nevertheless, McCain insisted Wednesday that "timetables" were code for retreat.
In reply, Romney said, "Let me make it absolutely clear again tonight: I will not pull our troops out until we have brought success in Iraq." He added that "raising it a few days before the Florida primary, when there was very little time for me to correct the record . . . sort of falls into the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible."
"Governor, the right answer to that question was 'no,'" McCain countered, referring to the ABC interview. " . . . 'Timetables' was the buzzword for withdrawal."
McCain attempted to link Romney's comments on timetables to his unrelated refusal, before his presidential campaign began, to state a position on the troop surge.
"It's simply wrong," Romney said. "And the senator knows it."
McCain then threw back at Romney one of the sources of the animosity between the two: the millions of dollars in attack ads that the former Massachusetts governor ran against Mike Huckabee in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire.
"Your negative ads, my friend, are -- have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign," McCain said.
Each declared the other unfit to assume the presidency.
"I know how to lead," McCain said at one point, sharpening a distinction between himself and Romney, a longtime businessman who never served in the military. "I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy, and I did it out of patriotism, not for profit. . . . I don't need any on-the-job training."
The former governor, after praising McCain's military service, declared that voters "don't look to senators" for leadership. Senators, he said, are "committee chairs, and they call that leadership."
Later, when each was asked why Reagan would have endorsed him, Romney said he -- and not McCain -- was part of the party's "heart and soul."
"Ronald Reagan would not approve of someone who changes their positions depending on what the year is," McCain replied.
The tension between McCain and Romney, the two leading Republican candidates, was heightened because the two sat next to each other, uncomfortable and occasionally glaring, as the insults burst forth. Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the two other participants, were often left out.
"I didn't come here to umpire a ballgame between these two," an irritated Huckabee said at one point, motioning to McCain and Romney. "I came here to get a chance to swing at a few myself."
The tone between the two was set at the debate's beginning, when questioner Janet Hook of The Times noted Romney's frequent criticisms this week that McCain would follow a "liberal Democratic" course.
Romney said McCain was "out of the mainstream" of Republican thought on a host of issues. He cited McCain's opposition to drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge and his past opposition to President Bush's tax cuts. Romney underscored his point by noting that McCain was endorsed by the New York Times, a publication reviled by conservative activists.
"Let me note that I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers, who know you best," McCain replied icily. " . . . I'll guarantee you the Arizona Republic will be endorsing me, my friend."
As the plane that served as Reagan's Air Force One loomed, gleaming, behind them, and a frail Nancy Reagan watched from the front row, the four men touched on a series of disputes central to the brand of Republicanism that Reagan propelled into the White House in 1980.
Each, citing the power of states, sided with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his dispute with the Bush administration over California's desire to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. They squirmed, however, when moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN read from Ronald Reagan's journal about the conservative outcry over his 1981 appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cooper asked each whether retired Justice O'Connor, viewed with contempt by conservatives for favoring abortion rights, was a good appointee. Paul was the sole candidate to directly answer the question.
"I wouldn't have appointed her, because I would have looked for somebody that I would have seen as a much stricter constitutionalist," he said.
Huckabee said he was unwilling to second-guess the late president.
"I'm not going to come to the Reagan Library and say anything about Ronald Reagan's decisions. I'm not that stupid," he said. "If I was, I'd have no business being president."
McCain praised O'Connor, a fellow Arizonan. But, he said, "the judges I would appoint are along the lines of Justices [John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito, who have a proven record of strict interpretation of the Constitution." Romney added conservative stalwarts Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The debate opened with each candidate being asked a question that echoed the one Reagan posed to voters en route to his first election: whether the nation was better off than when the last president took office. Reagan was referring to Jimmy Carter, whereas moderator Cooper meant George W. Bush.
Romney tried to parry by discussing how Massachusetts changed during his governorship -- for the better, he said -- until Cooper pressed him.
"I'm not running on President Bush's record; President Bush can talk about his record," Romney said, then segued to his campaign theme: "Washington is badly broken. I think we recognize that."
McCain said he was unleashing some "straight talk": "Things are tough right now." But he added that "I think we are better off overall, if you look at the entire eight-year period."
Huckabee blamed a Congress that he said had "sat around on their hands and done nothing but spend a lot of money."
It was left to Paul to close the matter with his characteristic bluntness.
"No, no, we're not better off. We're worse off," he said.