A sneak preview of John McCain's secret anti-Romney ad.

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Dec. 28 2007 1:18 PM

Fighting Mitt With Mitt

A sneak preview of John McCain's secret anti-Romney ad.

On Thursday, Mitt Romney put up a television ad knocking John McCain for not supporting tax cuts and offering amnesty to illegal aliens. The ad asks "John McCain, an honorable man. But is he the right Republican for the future?" Now the McCain team is thinking about using Romney's own words (and campaign aides) to respond.

Taxes and immigration have nothing to do with the future, particularly, but the framing is a not-so-subtle jab at McCain's age. In his closing-argument stump speech, Romney is trying to identify himself with the future. ''No one votes for yesterday; they vote for tomorrow,'' Romney said Thursday in New Hampshire. ''Elections are about the future, the future of our families, the future of our country.''

The McCain team's response is that Romney has to talk about the future because he's spent much of the campaign running from his past. This may become more than a quip if the campaign decides to air the following television ad, which they've had on the shelf since the spring.

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The ad hangs Romney with his own words—he advocates for a woman's right to choose and gun control, gets tongue tied on his own hunting practices, and distances himself from Ronald Reagan). What makes the ad particularly powerful for the McCain team, though, is that it was produced by media wizards who now work for Romney. Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer are veterans of the Bush campaign, which so effectively used John Kerry's words against him. They moved from Bush to McCain, but left and moved to Romney after the McCain operation imploded. When they were McCain guys, though, they helped put together this ad and pushed for running it, according to McCain aides and advisers. "Russ and Stuart were very animated in several meetings about attacking Romney," says a McCain ally. (Neither could be immediately reached for comment, either directly or through the campaign.)

After internal debate in the spring, McCain and his aides decided not to complete the final cut and run the ad (which is why the video does not have the candidate's voice). Back then, Romney was behind in the polls, McCain was ahead, and his aides thought this ad would elevate the challenger. "We decided it was an inappropriate time to run it so early in the process," says a top adviser who was involved. Maybe the timing is more appropriate now, from their point of view. Or, maybe now that they've leaked the ad to Slate, the cash-strapped campaign won't have to run it at all.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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