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How not to win friends and influence Republicans

February 5, 2008 | 10:20 am

What won't John McCain and Mitt Romney find to fight about?

Yesterday Bob Dole -- wounded World War II vet, long-serving Republican U.S. senator from Kansas, failed presidential contender -- sent out a letter to talk radio host Rush Limbaugh defending McCain's conservative credentials, much in challenge by Limbaugh and other conservative microphones.

This morning in an interview on Fox News (that the McCain camp ensured political journalists saw), Romney was, shall we say, dismissive of Dole's going to bat for McCain. And you have to wonder about the wisdom of insulting a tribal elder on one of the most important primary days of your political career.

So as our colleague, Maeve Reston, reports, McCain wandered back to the press gallery before his chartered plane took off this morning from New York to San Diego and went to bat for Dole. McCain said he was "saddened and disappointed to see that kind of comment about a person who is an American war hero, who built our party, who served our party so well for so long.... Bob Dole has served his country in war and in peace in a way that all of us admire, and to disparage that, or criticize him in such a way, is just not appropriate, I think, in the minds of most Americans." Then McCain demanded an apology on Dole's behalf from the former Massachusetts governor.

Lo and behold, he got one, sort of ...

... though you just know the Romney campaign will insist there was no cause-and-effect.

Speaking to reporters -- including our colleague, Seema Mehta -- a short time ago, Romney said his remarks about Dole were incomplete. He said he had tried to call the former senator to explain himself but couldn't get through. (He was overheard by reporters making the call, Mehta reports).

"Sen. Dole is an American hero, a war hero, a fine man and a great leader of our party," Romney told the press gaggle after delivering a primary day talk to West Virginia Republicans in Charleston. "What I’m pointing to, and pointed to in my comment, was that the selection for our nominee based on someone having served in our senate a long time, and being seen as the person who deserves the nomination, did not do well for us in that election. It is that aspect, not Sen. Dole, that I’m referring to, both that aspect of choosing the person who’s been in the senate the longest and giving it to them out of a sense of obligation that I think was the error."

So, is that clear now?

-- Scott Martelle