(AP) – Republican John McCain assailed Mitt Romney’s conservative credentials on the eve of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, going on national television with a new campaign ad that claims Romney “was against Ronald Reagan before he was for him.”

McCain had eased up on his criticism of the former Massachusetts governor since winning the primary in Florida last week and had begun acting like a general election candidate, focusing his harsh rhetoric on Democratic rivals.

But with hours to go before voting began in more than 20 states from coast to coast, McCain unloaded on Romney.

The 30-second ad airing on national cable television shows Romney distancing himself from Ronald Reagan, patron saint of modern conservatism, in a 1994 debate when he was challenging Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

“Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush,” Romney says in the ad footage. An announcer then intones, “If we can’t trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?”

McCain also ratcheted up the rhetoric during an interview with the CBS Evening News. Asked about his opponents’ weaknesses, the Arizona senator reverted to the caricature of Romney as a flip-flopper. “He’s had literally at least two positions on every major issue,” McCain said.

Kevin Madden, Romney’s campaign spokesman, noted the tension, saying McCain “has a long history of being an agitator” within the Republican Party.

“Governor Romney has a proven record of supporting core Republican principles like tax cuts and a strong border security policy,” Madden said. “John McCain would be unable to stand strong against the Democrats on taxes and illegal immigration since he has voted with the Democrats so many times on those issues.”

Romney also countered with automated telephone calls, including one recorded by former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and placed to thousands of Republican homes in Arizona, presumably including McCain’s.

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