McCain, Romney Make Last-Minute Appeals in Fla.

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008; 2:29 PM

Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney made last-ditch appeals for support today as Florida voters went to the polls in a Republican primary widely viewed as a critical step toward determining the eventual GOP presidential nominee.

With polls showing a tight race between the two increasingly bitter rivals, each kept up criticism of the other as they fought for votes in the closed, winner-take-all primary. Both were looking to Florida voters to separate them from the dwindling Republican pack and provide momentum heading into the "Super Tuesday" primaries and caucuses a week from today.

Facing a make-or-break situation in Florida was former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has staked his campaign on a win in the Sunshine State. He continued to voice optimism this morning, predicting a surprise victory despite polls that show him trailing the front-runners by double digits. Also competing were former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Democrats were campaigning elsewhere today, ignoring Florida's Democratic primary because the national party has stripped the state of its convention delegates as punishment for moving the primary up to January. Instead, the two front-runners -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois -- were focusing on the states that hold primaries or caucuses next week.

A day after picking up the endorsement of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), an icon of the liberal Democratic establishment, Obama today won the backing of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who delivered last night's Democratic response to President Bush's final State of the Union address. Sebelius, who is in her second term as governor in an otherwise solidly Republican state, announced her endorsement hours before Obama was scheduled to attend a rally in Kansas, his mother's home state. Kansas is holding Democratic caucuses on Feb. 5.

Clinton, meanwhile, won the endorsement of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a prominent House liberal who sits on the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Her backing helps the Clinton campaign as it tries to counter surging support for Obama among African Americans, who voted overwhelmingly for the biracial Illinois senator in South Carolina Saturday, helping him secure an easy primary victory there. Many blacks have been alienated by criticism of Obama lately from Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton.

"At a time when the economy continues to worsen and so many of my constituents are losing their homes and their jobs, we need someone with the leadership and experience who can step in on day one to tackle the economic challenges our country is facing," Waters said in a statement explaining her position. "Hillary understands the daily challenges that people are facing, and she will fight for them every day she is in the White House."

Also competing for Super Tuesday votes is former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. He finished a disappointing third in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, the state of his birth, but has indicated he plans to keep campaigning.

Speaking to reporters in St. Petersburg, Fla., this morning, McCain lit into Romney, accusing him of waging a negative campaign against all the other GOP contenders at one time or another.

"Governor Romney has attacked all of us," McCain said during a break from last-minute campaigning. He said he and Giuliani, Huckabee, Paul and former Tennessee senator Fred D. Thompson have not attacked each other. "It's only been Governor Romney who decides to attack opponents when he thinks that they are moving up and succeeding. I mean, that's just the way he campaigns."

Appearing with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who endorsed McCain Saturday night, the Arizona senator said he was "astonished" that Romney has castigated him as a liberal, a label that McCain also has applied to the former Massachusetts governor. "That was particularly entertaining," McCain said. He said it showed a "desperation level" in Romney's campaign.

McCain urged Floridians to vote for him as the candidate "who can keep America safe" and who has the "background, experience and knowledge" to deal with security threats such as radical Islamic terrorism.

Romney, addressing supporters in an airport hangar in Jacksonville last night, cited what he called his "real world" experience in economic matters, stressing his 25 years in the private sector as a corporate CEO.

"If you want somebody who understands how Washington works, you can elect the other guy," he told the crowd. "But if you want somebody who understands how America works, elect me and our team."

Despite his low standing in the polls, Giuliani told reporters he expects to win in Florida, thanks in part to what he said were nearly a half million Republican votes cast through early voting and absentee ballots. Polling places opened at 7 a.m. today and were scheduled to close at 8 p.m.

At stake for the Republicans are 57 delegates to the GOP national convention in September in Minneapolis, where 1,191 delegates are needed to secure the nomination. So far, according to Bloomberg news service, Romney, who won his party's Michigan primary and Nevada caucuses, has 59 delegates. McCain, who won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, has 41 delegates, and Huckabee, who took the Iowa caucuses, has 26.

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