McCain Stretches Romney's Words

ORLANDO -- Neck and neck with Mitt Romney here, Sen. John McCain sought to the pull the inter-campaign conversation away from the economy and back into his wheelhouse Saturday, dredging up an April 2007 quote from Mitt Romney and misleadingly suggesting that Romney agreed with Democrats' plans to set a withdrawal timetable for Iraq.

"Gov. Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal similar to what the democrats are seeking which would have led to the victory of Al-Qaeda in my view," McCain said, according to CBS News' Dante Higgins.

As proof, McCain's campaign directed reporters to an April 2007 interview with ABC News where
Romney said that the next "president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about."

That quote was derided by McCain at the time as a "secret timetable," although Romney never said he favored a particular withdrawal date and did not advocate an inflexible timeline for American troops to begin a draw down. Indeed, Romney has many times said he opposed such a withdrawal timetable.

McCain used the quote as part of a larger argument that he was the only Republican to fully support the surge of troops to Iraq commanded by Gen. David Petreaus. And it is clear that Romney has used softer language to characterize the likelihood of a pullout in his administration, once arguing that the Republican and Democratic presidents would likely not diverge in how they handled Iraq once they were in office.

Nonetheless, the words set off a fury of e-mail and telephone responses across the state, with campaign reporters for all the networks e-mailing each other the latest quotations from their candidates.

Romney said called McCain's charge "simply wrong" and "dishonest." A Romney spokesperson called McCain "unhinged;" A McCain spokesperson called the Romney spokesperson "Unhinged."

McCain later said it was Romney who should apologize, and "to the troops."

Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, then blasted this sentence to reporters: "This statement is especially egregious because Senator McCain knows in his heart that he is engaging in a blatant distortion towards a fellow Republican who is also committed to helping the men and women of our military achieve a successful result in Iraq."

Speaking later in Sun City, McCain repeated the charge that Romney favored a "timetable for withdrawal," words that Romney has never used.

Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, said that the context of the question was about withdrawal timetables. ". The question was about timetables and withdrawal. Romney answered it the way he answered it."

McCain later clarified the context: ""Last April, Governor Romney said he supported 'timetables' for withdrawing our troops from Iraq and keeping them secret. When he suggested secret 'timetables,' General Petraeus' new strategy in Iraq was just starting. Opponents of General Petraeus' strategy all argued that we should not increase troop levels, but establish 'timetables' for withdrawing our forces from Iraq. It was clear at the time that some were hedging their bets on Iraq, positioning themselves politically by being deliberately vague on their support for General Petraeus' new strategy. "

Rudy Giuliani, campaigning in Central Florida, used the occasion to distance himself from the internecine squabbles.

"We don't want to become like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, right? They're trying to work their way out of it, we shouldn't be trying to work our way into it."