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John McCain came to Mitt Romney's defense Tuesday, flatly rejecting the Democratic narrative that the 2008 GOP nominee balked at selecting Romney as his running mate because of something his staff found buried in the former governor's old tax returns.
But from there, things got a little awkward. The Arizona senator explained that the real reason he went with Sarah Palin was simply because she was the "better candidate" than the current presumptive GOP presidential nominee was at the time.
"Of course not," McCain told Politico Tuesday when asked if Romney's returns were the reason he was passed over in 2008. "I don’t know what depths these people won’t reach. Obviously, it’s just outrageous. That’s just outrageous. It shows the—it’s so disgraceful for them to allege something that they have absolutely no knowledge of."
So far, so good. But then McCain was asked to explain why he took a pass on the more-polished Romney—and in his response he appeared to indirectly ding both Romney and one of the men rumored to be on his current vice presidential short-list, saying that neither were better suited for the job at the time than the then-Alaska governor.
"Oh come on, because we thought that Sarah Palin was the better candidate," he said. "Why did we not take [Tim] Pawlenty, why did we not take any of the other 10 other people. Why didn’t I? Because we had a better candidate, the same way with all the others. ... Come on, why? That’s a stupid question."
To be fair, McCain can't go back in time and change the past, and so he is left with few options to explain away the reasoning behind his surprising pick. It also isn't clear whether McCain was making a nuanced distinction between who was best suited to help him win a national election and who was best suited to govern.
Nonetheless, it won't take a giant leap for Democrats to begin wondering aloud what, exactly, was it about a 2008 Romney that made him a less desireable vice presidential candidate than a then-first term governor (particularly during an election where Republicans sought to make then-Sen. Obama's relative inexperience a campaign issue), and what changed between then and January 2012 to make McCain officially endorse Romney for president.
McCain's team sifted through more than two decades worth of Romney's returns during the 2008 vetting process. In comparison, Romney has only made public his 2010 returns (and a 2011 estimate) during this year's election cycle.