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The War Over the War

McCain and Romney face off over Iraq.

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2008 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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At dinner the following evening, McCain complained that his Republican rivals were weak on the surge. "Some of these guys are sort of hedging their bets," he said. "Their advisers are telling them: 'Look, don't get too closely tied to it because they may be pulling out in April.' I don't know that for a fact. This is just what we surmise, so I can't attribute it. But I think it's fair to say that the Romney and Giuliani campaigns have tried to distance themselves from this issue. I think it's pretty obvious."

McCain was right. Advisers to Romney and Giuliani were saying almost exactly what he suggested as McCain fought hard--in Congress and with the White House--for victory in Iraq. Their hedging, quite understandably, made him angry.

But he has not always been willing to criticize them directly, usually making vague references to his opponents and their lack of commitment, as he did at the debate on Thursday. And sometimes, he even seems to offer them political cover--if not praise--on the issue. Speaking in front of a large group of reporters after a town hall meeting in Salem, New Hampshire, on January 6, I asked McCain if he considers Romney a "strong supporter of the war in Iraq."

"I do," he said. "I do."

His comments three weeks ago came at a time, immediately before the New Hampshire primary, when McCain was trying to appear above the fray. On the bus today, I reminded him of the exchange and asked him why he would have agreed with the characterization of Romney as a strong supporter of the war in Iraq.

"He was [a strong supporter] later on, once it succeeded. Once it succeeded, then of course, a lot of people got on board when it succeeded. At the time that was crucial, obviously he advocated a course that would have been, in my view, chaos, genocide and the retreat of the United States military."

McCain sharpened his criticism. "The American men and women who are serving, they want a steadfast leader. That's what they want. Not somebody that will change with whatever the prevailing winds are."

Asked if that describes Romney, he said it does. "It's very clear. He's changed positions on virtually every major issue. That's well documented."

All of the skirmishing over Romney's comments in April 2007 has obscured his worst moment on Iraq since the beginning of his campaign--or the beginning of his formal campaign, anyway. It came in December 2006, when the surge was first proposed. In an interview with Human Events, Romney avoided taking a position altogether. He was asked: "One of the people who is considering a run, Sen. McCain, has advocated sending up to 30,000 more troops to help stabilize Iraq. Do you support sending more troops into that country?"

Romney dodged the question. "I'm not going to weigh in. I'm still a governor. I'm not running for national office at this stage. I'm not going to weigh in on specific tactics about whether we should go from 140,000 to 170,000. That's something I expect the President to decide over the next couple of weeks and announce that to the nation. I want to hear what he has to say."

But Romney had done everything but formally announce his candidacy. One day before he claimed that he was not running for national office, the New York Times wrote that Romney (and others) had done so much to build their candidacies that "it would be noteworthy, after all they have done, if they were to announce that they were not running."

The article provided specifics. "Mr. Romney's intentions are also no mystery: he spent 212 days out of state last year, The Boston Globe reported last week, and has methodically moved over the past year to the right side of the Republican ocean." Romney had begun to recruit staff and sign up advisers. He was raising money for Republicans across the country and regularly seeking policy advice. And the reluctance he showed in weighing in on the surge did not keep him from speaking out on many other policy issues.

The inescapable conclusion: Mitt Romney was worried about the political implications of embracing a surge that could fail. So he avoided the question.

McCain wants to frame the decision facing Republican voters as a choice between management and leadership. The Romney evasion on the surge a year ago would have made his point more directly.