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."
Within moments, McCain's spokeswoman had sent an e-mail attack to reporters accusing Romney of "flip-flopping" on energy legislation. She also said Romney opposed a McCain-backed "cap-and-trade" system for controlling factory emissions after previously supporting it.
McCain quickly escalated the clash. In a statement a few hours later, the senator said: "Mitt Romney's campaign is based on the wholesale deception of voters. . . . The truth is, Mitt Romney was a liberal governor of Massachusetts who raised taxes, imposed with Ted Kennedy a big government mandate health care plan . . . and managed his state's economy incompetently."
Romney, who has been accused of flip-flopping since launching his candidacy, sought to turn the tables on McCain. Romney asserted that the senator had changed his mind on President Bush's tax cuts and repeatedly reversed himself on support for ethanol while seeking support in Iowa.
"Senator McCain was against the Bush tax cuts and now says he's for the Bush tax cuts. He was against ethanol, then for ethanol, then against ethanol," Romney told Fox News in an interview at a private airport in Fort Myers, after a small rally here. "I think Senator McCain is willing to say anything to try and get elected. He's been looking for this job for a long, long time."
He also suggested that McCain's bill to cap and trade greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming would translate into $1,000 in additional energy costs for U.S consumers each year. McCain disputed this, arguing that U.S. companies would bring cost-efficient technologies to the market.
The angry tone between the two extended to the airwaves, as McCain launched a new negative radio ad. "If they're going to attack us, we'll push back, so if we have a little sport roughing them up, too bad," McCain adviser Mark Salter said.
McCain's new radio ad mocks Romney's economic record as governor and questions his electability, with an announcer saying, "The bottom line: Mitt Romney loses to Hillary Clinton. Republicans lose. We can't afford Mitt Romney."
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden decried the ad. "This is the McCain way. Senator McCain always sinks to a lower level and offers distortions and flailing attacks against his opponents when a race is close," he wrote in an e-mail. "If you ever need proof that [a] Washington insider with the wrong record on Republican issues is threatened by the new ideas and strong record of Governor Romney, now you have it."
At a photo op in front of a Texaco station here, Romney also addressed a topic he rarely touches on, his Mormon faith. In discussing his friendship with the church's president, Gordon B. Hinckley, who died Sunday at age 97, Romney called him "one of the great leaders in our faith."
Responding to reporters' questions, he spoke of meeting Hinckley when the former governor ran the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, and talking to him on the eve of launching his presidential run. According to Romney, Hinckley told him a presidential run "would be a great experience if you won and a great experience if you lost."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin, with the McCain campaign, contributed to this report.