By Andy Sullivan
JOHNSTON, Iowa, Jan 1 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on Tuesday the Bush administration mismanaged the Iraq war, distancing himself from his party’s unpopular president two days before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential contest.
"I think we did a less than effective job in managing the conflict following the collapse of Saddam Hussein," the former Massachusetts governor said at a news conference. "I think we were underprepared for what occurred, understaffed, underplanned, and, in some respects, undermanaged."
Romney’s comments echo those of his rival John McCain, who for years has criticized the way former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld handled the war. Polls show McCain and Romney locked in a tight battle for first place in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s second primary contest on Jan. 8.
In Iowa, which holds its nominating contest on Thursday, Romney is neck-and-neck with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Both Romney and McCain, an Arizona senator, supported fellow Republican President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, though most Americans now say that was the wrong decision. Bush’s approval ratings have plunged over the course of the war, though he remains popular with Republicans.
Violence in Iraq has declined in recent months after an increase in U.S. troops there, and Romney and McCain both support the troop increase.
Romney has in the past criticized the intelligence leading up to the war and called for more troops. But after a visit to Iraq in 2006 he declined to criticize the way the war was being run, according to the Boston Globe.
On the campaign trail, Romney has portrayed himself as the best candidate to bring change to Washington and has touted his ability to work with Democratic lawmakers, drawing an implicit contrast with Bush’s often-confrontational dealings with Congress.
At a press conference, Romney said the Bush administration should have entirely revamped the Medicare health-insurance program for the elderly when it extended the program to cover prescription drugs and called its costs "unfortunate."
He praised Bush’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the No Child Left Behind law that increased federal involvement in education, which several Democratic candidates vow to repeal.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)