What Mitt Romney Doesn’t Need: A Furious John McCain

If John McCain thinks he deserved just a little better from Mitt Romney, well, it’s pretty understandable.

Five years ago, Mr. Romney’s political career was on the line. Just a week before the 2002 election, he found himself one point behind in the race for governor of Massachusetts, and his Democratic foe was about to receive some high-profile campaign assistance from Hillary Clinton.

And so Mr. Romney called in his secret weapon: Mr. McCain, who in those bygone days was the most popular national political figure in Massachusetts, where he scored a 65-11 percent favorable rating in a fall 2002 poll.

As the cameras rolled, Mr. Romney paid tribute to Mr. McCain’s “straight talk.”

“That’s the kind of leadership we need in Massachusetts—not a curved talker,” he said, taking a shot at his gubernatorial rival. Mr. McCain also lent his voice to automated phone calls that flooded Massachusetts, and Mr. Romney pulled out a last-minute victory.

But now Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney are running against each other for the presidential nomination, and it’s Mr. McCain who’s calling Mr. Romney the curved talker. His exasperation has begun to boil over. In Sunday night’s debate in Orlando, Mr. McCain reacted harshly to Mr. Romney’s suggestion that his rivals are less pure conservatives than he is.

“Governor Romney,” Mr. McCain said, “you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine. I stand on my record. I stand on my record of a conservative, and I don’t think you can fool the American people. I think the first thing you’d need is their respect.”

This came just a few days after Mr. McCain promised a Republican crowd that, unlike Mr. Romney, “I won’t con you.”

Mr. Romney is hardly the only past McCain ally now competing with him. The Arizonan was fairly close to Fred Thompson when both served in the Senate, and he forged a friendship with Rudy Giuliani in the years leading up to this race. But Mr. McCain’s campaign trail wrath is almost exclusively reserved for Mr. Romney, and with good reason: Mr. Romney rather tastelessly sold him out the instant it became convenient to his 2008 prospects.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Mr. McCain first calculated that Mr. Romney is a phony, but a good guess is last fall, back when Mr. Romney was calculating that Mr. McCain—and not Mr. Giuliani—would be the man to beat in the ’08 G.O.P. race. Mr. McCain (before ultimately caving in) was flashing the same “straight talk” credentials that Mr. Romney used to love, standing bravely against government-sanctioned torture. Mr. Romney picked that very moment to weigh in, scoring cheap points with the right by blasting Mr. McCain to The New York Times.

And it was Mr. Romney, making the very same calculation, who traveled the G.O.P. circuit this past winter and spring warning about the compromise legislation Mr. McCain had crafted to create a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Of course, Mr. Romney simply called the plan “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, making sure to refer to the legislation as “McCain-Kennedy.”

What infuriated Mr. McCain may not have been Mr. Romney’s opportunism as much as his hypocrisy: As recently as 2005, before Mr. McCain got in his way and before he realized the value of immigration-bashing, Mr. Romney called Mr. McCain’s plan “reasonable” and made a point of correcting those who equated it with amnesty.

In the early months of 2007, no one’s political stock fell more than John McCain’s: In January, he was the undisputed front-runner; by July, he was deemed as hopeless as Duncan Hunter. In that same time, Mr. Romney’s ’08 prospects soared, as he charmed conservative Republicans with a message that—quite conveniently—aligned perfectly with their values. This summer, he became the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire, a position he still holds today.

No doubt, Mr. McCain sees these as ill-gotten gains, the product of the phony, risk-averse, focus group-friendly politics that Mr. McCain views with such contempt. And, now that his campaign is down to its last out, he’s decided there’s no harm in calling Mr. Romney on it.

The damage to Mr. Romney could be considerable. First, Mr. McCain isn’t quite dead yet: He’s pinned his comeback hopes on New Hampshire, where his numbers have improved significantly. If he can deny Mr. Romney a win there, it should be the end of the Romney campaign.

And even if Mr. McCain doesn’t come close to the nomination, his reputation for integrity and heroism among many Republicans (if not G.O.P. interest-group leaders) has endured, something that was evident in Sunday’s debate when Mr. McCain won a standing ovation from the entire audience by making reference to his Vietnam captivity.

For Mr. Romney, who has taken hits from all sides for his flip-flopping and pandering, John McCain may prove to be a very dangerous enemy.

What Mitt Romney Doesn’t Need: A Furious John McCain