McCain vs Romney: Round Two
For the first six months of this year, the narrative that dominated the Republican presidential race was the behind-the-scenes battle between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.)
Each man viewed the other as his main rival for the nomination -- both men underestimated the staying power of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- and their respective campaign didn't let a day go by without passing along a research document or parsed quote that showed their rival in a less than flattering light.
The decline and fall of McCain's campaign over the summer put this back-and-forth on the back burner as Romney turned his rhetorical fire on Giuliani and McCain fought to stay in the race.
But, over the weekend, the ill will reemerged.
At a media availability in Sparks, Nevada, on Friday, Romney was asked how he could bring the conservative base together if he was the nominee. He answered that as he has traveled the country "conservatives in these states have heard me time and again [and] recognized that I do speak for the, if you will, the Republican wing of the Republican party and that the base Republican voter wants to see a conservative that will unite the three legs of the Republican stool."
While that remark was clearly aimed at Giuliani's social conservative bona fides (or lack thereof), it was McCain who quickly rose to the bait in a speech to the New Hampshire Republican Party on Saturday,
"When he ran for office in Massachusetts, being a Republican wasn't much of a priority for him," McCain said of Romney. "In fact, when he ran against Ted Kennedy, he said he didn't want to return to the days of Reagan-Bush. I always though Ronald Reagan was a real Republican."
McCain went on to note that Romney gave money to a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire, voted for Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas for president and refused to sign the "Contract With America" -- all of which, the Arizona Senator argued, was evidence that his claims as the real Republicans were false. (None of those accusations are new. But, what is new is the willingness of one of Romney's rivals to put voice to them in a public way.)
Romney's campaign wouldn't let those comments pass without pushing back. "Angry attacks from campaigns without any new ideas on how to bring change to Washington aren't what voters are looking for," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. Then he stuck in the shiv: "There are obvious differences with Senator McCain, notably his wrongheaded approach on immigration, his support of campaign finance reform that has stifled free speech and his joining Democrats to vote against the Bush tax cuts."
A couple points of context are important here.
First, it's no secret that their is no love lost between McCain and Romney. It's not clear whether the dislike is personal or purely political but it's there and makes each man more willing to take pot shots at the other.
Second, McCain's campaign begins and ends in New Hampshire. While his numbers have sunk in places like Iowa and South Carolina, he remains in the game in the Granite State; a new Marist poll released over the weekend put him in third place with 17 percent behind Romney at 26 percent and Giuliani with 20 percent.
So, while McCain is a second-tier candidate everywhere else, he's still clearly a first-tier candidate in New Hampshire and has the potential to do real damage to Romney there.
If McCain continues to pursue such an aggressive line against Romney, the real winner is Giuliani who also views New Hampshire as his best chance for a victory in the early states. Giuliani has gone out of his way to praise McCain in the debates and regularly refers to him as a friend. If McCain is willing to take the fight to Romney, it allows Giuliani to remain above the fray and, likely, avoid coming under serious attack in his own right.
History provides an interesting lesson here. In the 2004 Democratic presidential race, Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) and former Gov. Howard Dean (Vt.) engaged in an extended television war in Iowa that amounted to mutually assured destruction for both men who watched as Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) shot the gap into first and second place, respectively.
Romney must find a way to avoid a similar fate. He needs to answer McCain without turning this into an ugly brawl that will only accrue to Giuliani's benefit in the long run. The broader nomination fight still seems a contest between Giuliani and Romney and the former Massachusetts governor needs to keep his eye on the ball.
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