By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
Raising the stakes with his main rival in the crucial Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Mike Huckabee today of insulting President Bush and called on him to apologize for criticizing Bush's foreign policy as "arrogant."
Huckabee refused, saying he was not attacking the president personally but laying out a different vision for the US role in the world.
The exchange on national TV talk shows reflected the increasingly bitter battle between the former governors and one of the few instances in which Republican presidential hopefuls have been drawn into a confrontation over Bush's legacy. So far during the campaign, the candidates, wary of embracing a president with low approval ratings, have preferred to compare themselves to President Reagan, who remains unwaveringly popular with Republican voters.
But Huckabee's surge past Romney in the polls in Iowa -- where Republicans will hold the first nomination contest on Jan. 3 -- has clearly shaken up the race. Romney, despite vastly outspending Huckabee, declared for the first time last week that he is now the underdog in Iowa, and today, he sounded like one as he blasted Huckabee for calling Bush’s foreign policy "arrogant” and indicative of a "bunker mentality."
"That's an insult to the president, and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the president," Romney said on NBC's "Meet the Press.''
Within hours, Huckabee dismissed Romney's criticism.
"I don't have anything to apologize for," he said on CNN's "Late Edition.'' "I've got to show that I do have my own mind when it comes to how this country ought to lead, not only within its own borders but across the world."
Romney was seizing on an article Huckabee wrote for the January/February 2008 issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine, in which the former Arkansas governor asserts that "American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out."
"The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad," Huckabee wrote. "My administration will recognize that the United States' main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists."
Romney told campaign crowds in Iowa on Saturday that Huckabee was talking like Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards or Barack Obama, not a loyal Republican.
Romney has also at times criticized US policy in Iraq. On "Meet The Press" yesterday, host Tim Russert read aloud a quote from September in which Romney said that Iraq "is a mess."
"That's no reflection on George Bush?" Russert asked.
Romney said it was not the same as Huckabee's criticism, which the former Massachusetts governor said "went over the line."
"I've been saying for months, and I think all the Republican candidates, in fact, have been saying for months, if not years, that, that following the collapse of Saddam Hussein our policy was, was unprepared, unplanned, understaffed, under-managed," Romney said. "But it's very different to point out the mistakes that have been made -- and the president's pointed out the mistakes as well -- and then to say that the Bush administration, our president, is arrogant with a bunker mentality."
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