By Michael Kranish
MANCHESTER, N.H. _ Mitt Romney sought to seize back the initiative in his presidential campaign tonight, using a final Republican debate and a meeting with voters to hammer at rivals John McCain and Mike Huckabee on taxes and other issues. But with just two days before the crucial New Hampshire primary, McCain struck back, charging that Romney has "changed his position on almost every major issue," while Huckabee said Romney was making misleading attacks.
After a day of campaigning, the Republican candidates held their second debate in two nights and tussled repeatedly over taxes, always a central issue in the first-primary state. Romney charged that McCain opposed President Bush's tax cuts and "continues to believe that was the right vote to take." McCain responded that he wanted to couple tax cuts with spending cuts in order to stop what he called unnecessary spending.
Romney then went after Huckabee on taxing and spending, repeatedly asking the former Arkansas governor to admit that he raised taxes in Arkansas by a net $500 million over 10 years. When Huckabee declined to respond directly, Romney interjected, "You know, Mike, you make facts faster than you talk." Huckabee answered that his record should be put in perspective. He said he cut taxes and that voters approved a tax to pay for roads and that court order on school funding required higher taxes.
"It is not about the politics of saying `I never raised a tax.' It is about `I made government work,' " said Huckabee, who won Iowa's Republican caucuses on Thursday.
The two other candidates also tangled on the issue, with Rudy Giuliani defending his tax record as former mayor of New York City and former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee defending his plan to save Social Security, which would cut now-planned benefits for future retirees.
Romney was put on the defensive about his prior statement that he doesn't need to be a foreign policy expert in order to be president. Romney responded that his leadership experience is more important, but McCain said that his work on foreign policy and national security would make him better qualified to lead.