SIMI VALLEY, Calif. &
John McCain appears to be steamrolling his way to the Republican nomination; Mitt Romney can't seem to catch a break.
Coming off a Florida triumph, the Arizona senator picked up former GOP rival Rudy Giuliani's endorsement and prepared to secure another high-value nod from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ahead of Tuesday's virtual national primary when that state and 20 others vote.
In a debate here Wednesday night, McCain also put Romney on the defensive over where the former Massachusetts governor stands on continued U.S. military involvement in Iraq. The spat highlighted McCain's strength &
national security &
and Romney's weakness.
"I have never, ever supported a specific timetable for exit from Iraq, and it's offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have," Romney said of McCain's charge last weekend in Florida that his rival favored a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
Romney said that the news media had found the allegation to be misleading and questioned why McCain never leveled it in any prior debate.
"Raising it a few days before the Florida primary, when there was very little time for me to correct the record, when the question that was most frequently asked is, 'Oh, you're for a specific date of withdrawal,' sort of falls in the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible," Romney said.
The debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Asked last April whether he believed there should be a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, Romney said U.S. and Iraqi leaders "have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about" in private.
During Wednesday's debate, Romney said he was not calling for a specific withdrawal date.
McCain calmly replied, "Well, of course, he said he wanted a timetable." He added: "Governor, the right answer to that question was 'no,' not what you said."
As the discussion continued, Romney grew animated, leaning back in his chair, facing toward McCain next to him and saying in exasperation: "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?"
McCain countered by saying he had pressed the issue, if not the specific allegation.
"I raised it many times, as to whether you have the experience and the judgment to lead this country in the war against radical Islamic extremism," McCain said.
The back-and-forth highlighted Romney's challenges as he seeks to knock McCain off his perch over the next six days.
McCain is the only Republican to have won three hotly contested primaries, racking up wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida to gain the lead in the delegate hunt and capture a jolt of momentum heading into next week's primaries and caucuses.
As he has accumulated wins, McCain has found himself gaining the support of many members of the GOP's old guard even though he's long been considered an antagonist to the Republican establishment.
Shifting dynamics in the GOP field tilt in McCain's favor.
Giuliani dropped out of the race after seven consecutive losses, meaning McCain no longer has to fight with the former New York mayor over the same pool of voters. Both Giuliani and McCain attract moderate Republicans and those calling themselves independents.
Without Giuliani in the hunt anymore, many could turn to McCain.
At the same time, Mike Huckabee announced his intention to go the distance in the race even though he hasn't won a state since Iowa's caucuses. The former Arkansas governor and one-time Baptist preacher attracts large numbers of the party's most conservative voters &
the same right-flank people Romney has spent more than a year courting.
staying in the race, Huckabee could eat into Romney's support &
and that could help McCain.
Despite the hurdles, Romney was moving forward Thursday with plans to run a "significant" level of television ads in California and other states that vote Tuesday &
a signal that he will work aggressively to try to derail McCain.
Romney is seeking to get back on track after two straight losses to McCain &
in South Carolina on Jan. 19 and more recently in the winner-take-all state of Florida.
After seven contests, Romney is down narrowly in the delegate count &
with 1,191 needed to secure the nomination and 1,023 up for grabs Tuesday. Romney has decided to try to cobble together wins in enough states to overtake the emboldened McCain &
or at least remain relevant.
covers the Republican presidential race for The Associated Press.
McCain steamrolling ahead; Romney can't catch a break
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. &