McCain and Romney's War of Words

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican Presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at a town hall meeting, Tuesday, May 8, 2007, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Correction Appended: May 23, 2007.

For the past two days, it's been the small-arms shot heard 'round the blogosphere: John McCain popping off on a conference call about Mitt Romney's opposition to the current immigration bill. "Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if it changes," the Senator said. "Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard."

The Romney campaign has been crisply disdainful of the observation. Spokesman Kevin Madden called it "a tactic borne of desperation," and "obviously the result of an inability to deal with the current political fallout they are experiencing on this issue."

For their part, the McCain camp seems to be enjoying the attention garnered by the gibe, embracing the fact that McCain has set Romney specifically in his sights. They point out that the comment came in direct response to a question not about the immigration bill, but about Romney's positioning himself against it. (You can hear the exchange here.) Further, says McCain spokesman Brian Jones, "tonally, it was similar to 'bomb Iran'" — pointedly, a McCain gibe that received similarly mixed reviews — "He made a joke and moved on to something substantive. It was not a temper tantrum; it was not a gaffe. He delivered a line."

The joke may or may not have been scripted, but whenever it popped into his head, McCain was clearly eager to deliver it. The two men have been competitors for mere months, but in that short time, Romney's anchorman good looks and practiced ease have come to symbolize the exact type of carefully calibrated retail politics that provoked McCain's outsider assault on Bush in 2000. But his engagement with Romney on this level is more than just a mere gambit at a time that Romney has surged to the lead in Iowa polls — it's a genuine expression of the McCain campaign's irritation.

Indeed one thing both McCain and Romney staffers agree on: The aside and the two camp's reactions to it highlight the fundamental differences between the campaigns — and the character of the candidates. In an e-mail, Romney spokeman Madden even put it in chart form:

Them: Angry, lacking composure

Ours: Poised, composed, making the case on the substantive disagreement that [the Governor] has with this particular approach on the immigration issue.

Romney is, in many ways, the anti-McCain. Polished where McCain is rough, smiling where McCain grimaces, very, very tan where as McCain is pale. Romney's successes have come in large part due to a smooth manner and a gentle way with words; McCain has succeeded in politics despite lacking those skills.

But one cannot brush off McCain's "small varmint gun" quip as entirely lacking substance. If anything, it's a model of political economy: There's the obvious reference to Romney's now-notorious "evolving" opinions (on gay rights, on abortion, on immigration), there's the more obscure dig at Romney's comic explanation for his spotty hunting record (the "lifelong hunter" has been on two hunts — "for small varmints, if you will"). And there's the for-junkies-only joke, resurrecting a six-month-old charge that Romney's landscaping company employed illegal immigrants from Guatemala. As an added bonus, the riff could also be a slyly self-deprecating poke at the exact persona Team Romney seeks to remind voters of: The angry old man, yelling at neighborhood kids to "Get off my lawn!"

Not that McCain advisers laugh off the "angry old man" charge easily. If anything — as many reporters' bruised egos and eardrums will attest — the tempers of his campaign team flare more frequently than the Senator's passions do, though they receive less attention. Last week brought the latest media stir over a salty McCain riposte, this one to Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn; it included both a "barnyard epithet" (as it came to be known in the Nixon White House transcripts) and a verb last in political news when uttered by Dick Cheney. (Notably, the harshest reaction reporters received from Romney when they pressed him about those laboring Guatemalans was "Geez.")

Some conservative commentators, seeking to turn the "spirited exchange" (McCain's team's characterization) into a political metaphor, said that McCain's response to Cornyn symbolizes the candidate's eagerness to push through flawed legislation (that he also wants to take all the credit for). Or, more fundamentally, it showed his willingness to do what is politically expedient, regardless of who gets knocked aside along the way.

Of course, the immigration bill now being considered is anything but politically expedient — it's an albatross for all the conservatives associated with it. The truly politically expedient position for Republicans would be to criticize the bill (and "amnesty") without offering any alternative. (Tuesday Romney, in an echo of his refusal to offer his opinion on the surge earlier this year, told reporters that he didn't have a direct suggestion for how to fix the legislation: "I'm not in the position to make that call today.")

Romney's people like to remind voters that he was a businessman and marketer. McCain's staff point to the Senator's history of diving into political problems without regard to party orthodoxy. One of those resumes is that of someone good at making sales, which is different than making compromises. For what it's worth, Romney has probably been more successful in his line of work. But with his newfound willingness to highlight this distinction, McCain is making a not entirely calculated bet that when it comes to electing a President, Americans would rather embrace a hard-nosed dealmaker than a smooth operator.

The original version of this story featured a statement made by John McCain to reporters — "No, we did not hire anyone who was in this country illegally, and we made sure we didn't. And you might go back to my opponent's camp and [tell them] we've moved. We now live in a condominium, OK? Duh." — that was incorrectly attributed to Mitt Romney. The statement has been omitted from the story.