Verbal fisticuffs in the GOP

Times Staff Writer

Republican presidential candidates Saturday intensified a contentious debate about which of the front-runners best reflects the mainstream of their party, as Mitt Romney’s rivals lambasted his recent claim to represent the “Republican wing of the Republican party.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in an unusually sharp attack, pointed to Romney’s record of support for liberal causes -- and even for Democratic political candidates -- in the past and while he was governor of Massachusetts.

“As we all know, when he ran for office in Massachusetts, being a Republican wasn’t much of a priority,” McCain said at a speech in New Hampshire. McCain was responding to remarks made by Romney on Friday portraying himself as the most reliable conservative of the GOP front-runners.


“Conservatives that have heard me time and again recognize that I do speak for the Republican wing of the Republican party,” Romney said, as he continued to criticize former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for questioning the constitutionality of the line-item veto.

The increasingly personal sniping underscores how none of the GOP candidates has a lock on the party’s conservative wing -- and how many of them are struggling to do so because their records include significant departures from party orthodoxy. Giuliani is out of step with conservatives on social issues because he supports gun control and abortion rights. McCain has opposed President Bush’s tax cuts and crafted a campaign finance bill loathed by most Republicans. Fred Thompson does not support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Romney, too, has liberal elements in his record that he has had to explain in his effort to position himself as the conservative standard-bearer. He once supported abortion rights but has changed his position. He used to be seen as sympathetic to gay rights but now emphasizes firm opposition to gay marriage.

McCain cited two lesser-known points from Romney’s past: In 1992, he voted in the Democratic presidential primary, and he donated money to a New Hampshire Democrat running for Congress.

“So you’ll understand why I’m a little perplexed when Mitt Romney suggests he’s a better Republican than me,” McCain said.

Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, responded, “Angry attacks from flailing campaigns won’t stop Gov. Romney from moving forward with his optimistic agenda.”


Madden said Romney voted for presidential candidate Paul Tsongas in 1992 in an effort to counter Bill Clinton’s candidacy, which he considered a bigger threat to the GOP. He said that he donated to New Hampshire Democrat Dick Swett because he was a personal friend, and that 98% of all his political contributions have been to Republicans.

McCain, struggling to revive his lagging campaign, made his remarks in a speech to Republicans in New Hampshire -- a state he won in the 2000 presidential primary. He tried in Saturday’s presentation to revive his image as a “straight talking” maverick and contrast that with what he believes is Romney’s inconsistency.

“You expect me to be honest with you about what I believe,” he said. “You might not always agree with me on every issue, but I hope you know I’m not going to con you.”

Katie Levinson, a spokeswoman for Giuliani, joined in the round of criticism, saying, “Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?”