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Romney accuses McCain of "dirty tricks"

SIMI VALLEY, California (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angrily accused his rival John McCain on Wednesday of “dirty tricks” for saying he had backed a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

“It’s offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have,” Romney said.

Simmering tensions from the campaign for Florida, where McCain outdueled Romney to win the state’s Republican nomination contest on Tuesday and solidify his front-runner status, spilled over into a crucial debate in California.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor now fighting for his political life with more than 20 states to hold their nominating votes on “Super Tuesday” next week, accused McCain of lying about his Iraq record.

Those races could well determine the Republican Party’s choice for the November 4 election against a Democratic candidate to succeed President George W. Bush.

Gone from the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who quit the race after a dismal finish in Florida and endorsed McCain.

Romney’s job was to try to stop the momentum of McCain, who leads opinion polls in some of the key “Super Tuesday” prizes -- California, New York and New Jersey. But Romney looked frustrated and defensive at times and it was unclear how much headway he had made.

Romney accused McCain of holding liberal positions out of step with mainstream Republicans. In response, McCain said Romney raised taxes as governor of Massachusetts and suggested he had changed his position on important issues.

Romney said he “absolutely, unequivocally” had never supported setting a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq -- a proposition that was a live item for debate a year ago before a U.S. troop build-up began to stabilize parts of the country.

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“And by the way, raising it a few days before the Florida primary, when there was very little time for me to correct the record ... falls into the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would’ve found reprehensible,” a tense Romney said, with McCain sitting at his side.


McCain, an Arizona senator who backed the Iraq build-up even though it was unpopular, said Romney was asked last year whether the troop “surge” was a good idea and had said: “We don’t want them to lay in the weeds until we leave...”

McCain said he took that to mean Romney backed a timetable for a pullout, prompting an angry denial.

“How is it you are the expert on my position when my position has been very clear?” Romney demanded, saying McCain had multiple chances to bring the issue up during the campaign but had done it only to try to damage him in Florida.

The exchange was so heated at the CNN/Los Angeles Times/Politico debate that the other Republican contenders, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, complained.

Paul said McCain and Romney were engaged in “silly arguments about who said what, when.”

Romney said McCain’s record on illegal immigration, global warming and tax cuts put him “outside the mainstream of American conservative thought.”

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Romney also poked at McCain for his endorsement last week by The New York Times.

“Let me note if you get endorsed by The New York Times you’re probably not a conservative,” Romney said.

McCain, who won the contests in South Carolina and New Hampshire before taking Florida, shot back that he had been endorsed by two of Romney’s hometown newspapers in Boston and said Romney had his own liberal tendencies.

“I heard Gov. Romney describe his record, as I understand it his record was he raised taxes by $730 million -- he called them fees. I’m sure the people that had to pay it, whether they called them bananas, they still had to pay $730 million extra,” McCain said.

“I’m proud of my conservative record. It’s one of reaching across the aisle to get things done.”

Editing by John O’Callaghan