'Special Report' Panel on Dustup Between John McCain and Mitt Romney

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from January 31, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


MITT ROMNEY, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Absolutely, unequivocally, absolutely n o, I have never, ever supported a specific timetable for exit from Iraq. And it is offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have.

JOHN MCCAIN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The debate after the election of 2006, was whether we were going to have timetables for withdrawal or not. "Timetables" were(sic) the buzz word. That was the Iraq study group. That was what the Democrats said we wanted to do. Your answer should have been "no."


BRIT HUME, HOST: Romney said his answer was indeed no when the follow-up question came if the Congress sent you a bill with a timetable withdrawal in it, would do as the president has said he would do and veto it? And he said yes, indeed he would.

Some thoughts on this controversy which dominated last night's debate from Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call, and the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, FOX News contributors all.

Well, Charles, what about this exchange last night? What about the performance of these two men who were clearly center stage, much to the annoyance of Mike Huckabee last night, in this debate out in California?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: I must say for most of the debate McCain was not at his best. He was irascible, self-righteous, and on a couple of issues, appalling.

However, on this particular exchange, I looked at this quotation every which way, and even though McCain exaggerated, this is not exactly the equivalent of waving the flag the way that Hillary did in her response to a question about withdrawal in a debate.

Romney protests too much. He pretends that what he is talking about in discussions with Maliki about timetables and benchmarks is about everything except withdrawal. It's about troop training and rotation, et cetera.

However, the sentence after he talks about timetables he says "You want this in private, you don't want it in public, because otherwise the enemy will know what you are leaving."

HUME: Wasn't that one of the big arguments against a timetable?

KRAUTHAMMER: That's the argument against, he says, against the public declaration of it. But he's implying that you don't want to say publicly, but if you are saying that a public announcement will alert Al Qaeda about your leaving, it means that the private discussion was about your leaving. So, in fact, McCain is right.

And, look, this was in response to a question about withdrawal. It's not to say that somehow Romney is a traitor or he's calling for an immediate exit. He was hedging. He hedged in April, and it was not unreasonable. Nobody had any idea that the surge would be such a success. A policy maker would actually have to think what do you do if it doesn't succeed?

And we are now having discussions with Maliki about a long-term agreement in which we will have timetables of withdrawal, ultimately. But in April of last year, and then in December of the year before, obviously, Romney hedged on support of the surge. And McCain is right, that he staked everything on the surge because he believed that it's better to lose an election than to lose a war.

MORT KONDRACKE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, ROLL CALL: I agree with Charles. The question that Robin Roberts put to Romney was do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?

His answer is to take the idea of the timetable and say, no, we will not have a public timetable. But he was talking about timetable, and the question was about withdrawing troops.

What would McCain have said in response to that? Withdraw? Bunk withdrawal. We're in this to win this. He did not say that.

I think this was another example of Mitt Romney wanting it both ways. Yes, he uses the word, he wants to imply he's making some distance, just in case, to keep himself—

HUME: But McCain accused him of favoring a timetable of withdrawal, of calling for one. Is that fair?

KONDRACKE: That is clearly over the top. It is a charge that is over the top. But, still, Romney was not four square behind the surge.

HUME: I think it can be stipulated by probably everybody, perhaps even including Romney, that nobody was more for the surge among this field of candidates than John McCain was. Certainly that's an indisputable fact.

The question really for me was why in the world would McCain need to say this about Romney during the Florida campaign where McCain was, a, ahead, and Romney wasn't claiming that McCain wasn't the strongest advocate of the surge?

KRAUTHAMMER: Because it's a tough attack and it works.

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: He wanted to change the subject. The subject had become the economy. That's Mitt Romney's strongest suit, and it's one of McCain's weaker suits. And so he wanted to change the subject. And the truth is he succeeded in changing the subject to Iraq.

Now, look, everybody agrees nobody is stronger in supporting the war in Iraq and the surge, in particular, than John McCain. Nobody admires him for doing this more than I do, except for perhaps President Bush. He has been great on this.

But what he has accused Romney of is Clintonian. That's exactly what it is. He has taken something that Romney has and twisted it to mean something it doesn't mean at all.

I think it's pretty clear he is not talking about some firm timetable that you're going to get the troops out. The Pentagon talks about these things all the time publicly about bringing troops out, or at least leaks stories, and that's a mistake.

It is a little like exactly what the Clintons have done. In order words, what McCain was saying is basically you can't mention the word "timetable." That's buzzword. You can't mention it without condemning it in any form. And on the Democratic side, you can't mention the word Ronald Reagan without condemning him.

Obviously, McCain didn't need to do this, shouldn't have done it, and it certainly isn't straight talk.

HUME: When we return, does John McCain now have unstoppable momentum? And what about the "governator" and his endorsement? We'll talk about that next.



GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, R-CALIF.: He's a great American hero and an extraordinary leader. This is why I'm endorsing him to be our next president of the United States. So let's hear it for Senator McCain. Thank you very much.


HUME: So, another endorsement from a big name figure. That was Rudy Giuliani, who was not expected at the event, was there as well, and was in every shot. And when he had his chance to speak, he thanked everybody much as it was his event.

But there is a sense of momentum here. There is obviously an attempt to create a bandwagon here. You get Giuliani one day, that's a big deal— it plays live at 6:00 o'clock in many places. And now you have the "governator" with his endorsement. He is a popular figure in many places in the country.

How about it? Is McCain now unstoppable?

BARNES: No. He is stoppable, but he's probably going to win the nomination. He's the favorite. He has advantages, and particularly the states coming up on February 5.

You asked why Giuliani was there. Brit, he was welcomed. You know why? Because he dropped out, and that's going to help McCain, obviously, in states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and a bunch of others.

But guess who is still in the race? Mike Huckabee. That also helps McCain because his voters, if he dropped out, would be more likely to go to Romney, I think, than they would be to McCain.

HUME: It sounds like what Fred is saying is the guy may be unstoppable. Do you agree?

KONDRACKE: I think that he is theoretically stoppable because—

HUME: By whom and how?

KONDRACKE: My colleague at Roll Call, Stew Rothenberg, wrote a column today that noted that Florida was the fifth consecutive event where McCain failed to capture a clear plurality of self-described Republicans, even though you had to be a registered Republican to vote in Florida.

They were asked how do you identify yourselves, and 17 percent identified themselves as independents even though they were registered Republicans. They are the ones that gave McCain the victory.

The people who identified themselves as Republicans split evenly between Romney and McCain. The voters in all these Super Tuesday states presumably are mostly conservative Republicans. And there is an opportunity to get those people to vote against McCain.

But Romney ain't doing it. He is not exciting that conservative base. That's his problem.

HUME: It does seem, too, Charles, that leading opinion makers on the right, the radio talk show hosts who have a lot of influence and others have not decided to rally to—is as if they are waiting for someone to come out of the blue who is not here yet. They thought it was Thompson. That didn't work. Now where do they go?

KRAUTHAMMER: Godot is not coming.

HUME: Godot is not coming.

KRAUTHAMMER: You are stuck with McCain and all of these people who have tried to rally the base against McCain have not succeeded. He has won running as a centrist. You look at that picture—

HUME: So you think he is unstoppable?

KRAUTHAMMER: I can't see a scenario in which he is stopped.

You look at that picture of Giuliani, Schwarzenegger, and McCain in a solar paneled factory talking about global warming. That's triple heartburn among conservatives. But I think—

HUME: How could conservatives, who have dominated the Republican nominating process for lo these many years now be in a situation where somebody is about to roll them?

KRAUTHAMMER: Because there is no Reagan around who would engender enthusiasm. As you said, Thompson attempted. That was a failure. They are stuck—

HUME: Why will they not rally to Romney?

KRAUTHAMMER: Look, he's got a checkered history. There are a lot of people who don't trust him. He's also unknown in the sense that he has just come along with a lot of money and a lot of ads. And he doesn't have a connection. He simply hasn't had that touch.

HUME: So you don't think they will rally to him?

KRAUTHAMMER: I think not, and the reason I say it is it hasn't happened until now.

BARNES: There is just some chemistry that doesn't click with conservatives. Laura Ingraham, who has a talk radio show that is extremely popular, she is very against McCain, but she hasn't rallied behind Romney. She says the parts don't fit together with the guy, and all these fluffy things.

And as for conservatives, it doesn't look good.

HUME: Republicans, the way this is going, they may be unable to change.

BARNES: McCain has a big job ahead. It's not hanging around with the moderates. It's attracting conservatives.

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