McCain, Romney Go Another Round in Fla.

The Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr. talks about the campaign of Mitt Romney. Video by Chet Rhodes/
By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers and Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

ORLANDO, Jan. 28 -- The front-runners in the Florida Republican primary exchanged some of their sharpest criticisms of the campaign on Monday, with each seeking a win on Tuesday that would provide a big haul of delegates and a burst of momentum heading into a Feb. 5 mega-primary.

With polls showing the race a dead heat between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the intensity of the vitriol from both sides increased as the clock ticked down. Romney said McCain would set the nation on a "liberal Democratic course"; McCain responded by saying that Romney's campaign is based on "the wholesale deception of voters." Romney shot back that McCain will "say anything to get elected; it's not going to work."

Democrats will also vote here Tuesday. The Democratic National Committee has said it will not seat the state's delegation at the party's convention in August because Florida Democrats moved their primary into January, a violation of party rules. But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) plans to gather with supporters in the state after polls close.

Her campaign hopes a victory here, although it would come without the candidates working the state and will not yield delegates, will take some of the sting out of her lopsided loss to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in South Carolina on Saturday.

As McCain and Romney sniped, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani ignored polls that showed him struggling to keep pace with the front-runners and continued to barnstorm across the state. He held sparsely attended rallies at four airport hangars and told supporters he has not given up.

"We're going to win Florida tomorrow," Giuliani told a small crowd in Orlando. "If we win here in Florida, we're going to win the Republican nomination. And then we're going to win the presidency. And once again it'll be Florida that determines the president of the United States."

On the plane from Orlando to St. Petersburg, Giuliani said he "fully intends" to participate in Wednesday's Republican debate in Southern California, regardless of the outcome in Florida.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has not campaigned aggressively in the state and has not run ads here. He held an event in Pensacola on Monday before jetting off to campaign in Nashville, then returned for a rally in Tampa on Monday night.

All of the Republican campaigns said they expect a large turnout in Tuesday's primary. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Florida ballots have already been cast, thanks to early voting that began weeks ago. By Monday, election officials said Republican voters had returned more than 470,000 ballots and Democrats had returned 404,000.

Florida's GOP primary will be the first of the 2008 campaign open only to Republicans, making it a clearer test of a candidate's appeal to the party's conservative base. McCain, in particular, will have to win without the support of independents, who helped him prevail in New Hampshire and South Carolina. It is also the largest, most diverse state to vote so far, and one whose residents are struggling with a depressed housing market and a faltering economy.

For several days last week, GOP candidates responded by promising to lead an economic revival in the state and across the nation. But with Romney needing a win to stay on equal footing with McCain and the senator hoping a victory will make him the unquestioned front-runner when Republicans in 21 states vote next Tuesday, those positive messages gave way over the weekend to the most personal attacks of the year-long campaign.

Romney began Monday by asserting that McCain's accomplishments in Congress helped set the nation on "a liberal Democratic course." He said McCain-sponsored legislation on energy, immigration and campaign finance "aren't conservative, those aren't Republican, those are not the kind of leadership that we need as we go forward."

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