You might think that because the Democratic side of the primary fight is the one with a solid frontrunner and a set of increasingly desperate also-rans, it would be the one with the more vicious and vitriolic attacks.
You would be wrong.
“…conservatives that have heard me time and again recognize that I do speak for the Republican wing of the Republican Party,” Romney told the Nevada gathering, according to the Associated Press.
Less than 24-hours later, McCain responded with a blistering and detailed assault on Romney that read like an opposition research paper. “I don’t usually do this but I’m going to depart for a moment from the issues I want to talk to you about today,” McCain said at the beginning of his address to the party meeting. “One of the other Republican candidates made an extraordinary statement yesterday. Former Gov. Romney yesterday proclaimed himself the only real Republican in this race. As we all know, when he ran for office in Massachusetts being a Republican wasn’t much of a priority for him. In fact, when he ran against Ted Kennedy, he said he didn’t want to return to the days of Reagan-Bush. I always thought Ronald Reagan was a real Republican. When Gov. Romney donated money to a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire, I don’t think he was speaking for Republicans. When he voted for a Democratic candidate for President, Paul Tsongas, I don’t think he was speaking for Republicans. When he refused to endorse the Contract with America, I don’t think he was speaking for Republicans. And when he was embracing the Democratic position on many major issues of the day, I don’t think he was speaking for Republicans.”
“So you’ll understand why I’m a little perplexed,” McCain continued, “when Mitt Romney now suggests that he’s a better Republican than me, or that he speaks for the Republican wing of the Republican Party.”
The problem, though, is that this attack is only really credible coming from Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, or Duncan Hunter—true conservatives all but denizens of the second tier. McCain has his own very serious apostasies: campaign finance reform, immigration, opposition to the Bush tax cuts (a position since reversed), and so on. That’s why McCain followed his criticism of Romney with this:
“I think I’ve gotten to know the people of New Hampshire pretty well. I know that before I can win your vote, I have to win your respect. And to do that, you expect me to be honest with you about what I believe. You might not always agree with me on every issue, but I hope you know I’m not going to con you. The most important thing we have in this life is our self-respect. And I’m not going to trade mine for anyone’s vote or for any office. I’m going to tell you what I believe and let the chips fall where they will.”
Mitt as a flip-flopping con man is a meme the Romney campaign has largely seen come and go. They endured roughly a million press reports painting Romney as a guy willing to say anything and take any position to become president, and they’re still on top in Iowa and New Hampshire. McCain has to be wondering what he can do, other than raise the volume.