Mona Charen

Usually the guy who's ahead finds it within himself to be gracious to his competitors whereas the desperate runner-up goes negative and reaches for any stick. So it was peculiar to watch John McCain sneering and slicing his way through the debate with Mitt Romney at the Reagan Library. When McCain was given up for dead last summer, he was witty and fun on the stump. Now that he is the front-runner, he is snarky and obnoxious. Dr. Freud, call your office.

They say that McCain harbors a particular dislike for Romney. And why would that be? Well, Romney is pretty much the only candidate in the race who has had the temerity (aka cash) to run ads criticizing McCain. The senator from Arizona has some fine qualities, but no one has ever suggested that enduring criticism manfully is one of them. He tried his best to make such effrontery illegal with the McCain/Feingold campaign finance law. Romney found a loophole and McCain is irritated.

McCain lashed out at Romney for supposedly endorsing "timetables" for withdrawal from Iraq last year, saying that Romney, like Hillary Clinton, wanted to "wave the white flag" and "Timetables was [sic] the buzzword for those that [sic] wanted to get out." The two tangled over this question for many rounds during the debate. After vigorously denying the lie, Romney, ever the gentleman, injected a note of graciousness by saying, "He's a fine man and a man I respect, and I particularly respect his service in the military and his integrity and courage for our nation."

A few moments later, the audience no doubt leaned forward in their seats, waiting for a correspondingly polite compliment from McCain about Romney and instead heard, "Oh, I'm sure that, as I say, he's a fine man. And I think he managed companies, and he bought, and he sold, and sometimes people lost their jobs." Sucker punch.

Well, say McCain enthusiasts, the senator is simply offended by those who lack the courage of their convictions. Remember his snide dig at Romney ("Oh you're the candidate of change all right")? There are two answers to that. In the first place, only a willful misreading of Romney's timetable comment could yield the interpretation McCain ascribed to it. Second, Senator Unswerving himself had unambiguously talked of changing course in Iraq in January of 2007.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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