By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 15, 2008
BOSTON, Feb. 14 -- Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney made a Valentine's Day endorsement of Sen. John McCain on Thursday, ending a bitter, year-long rivalry and handing over almost enough delegates to guarantee McCain the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney released the 280 delegates he had won from their pledge to support him and urged them to back McCain (Ariz.). He called McCain a "true American hero" and said the party needs to unify behind him.
"Even when the contest was close and our disagreements were debated, the caliber of the man was apparent," Romney said at a news conference at his campaign headquarters. "Right now, the Democrats are fighting; let us come together and make progress while they are fighting."
That the two politicians eventually came together was not entirely surprising. Romney is already looking to lay the groundwork for a future presidential run, and embracing the party's probable 2008 nominee could help that effort.
McCain made a similar move in 2000, when he endorsed George W. Bush after a divisive primary fight. For McCain, Romney's endorsement could help mend fences with conservatives in his party, many of whom had rallied to Romney and view the senator warily.
Romney's effusive praise for McCain was nonetheless jarring in light of his repeated criticisms, some as recently as two weeks ago, when both were in the final days of heated competitions for Florida and nearly two dozen Super Tuesday states.
The pair had clashed for more than a year as Rom
ney spent millions from his personal fortune on television ads, many of which portrayed McCain negatively. The waning days of the campaign were especially nasty, with Romney accusing McCain of being dishonest and McCain attacking Romney as an inveterate flip-flopper.
Romney called McCain "wrong" and "dishonest" and demanded that he apologize for saying the former governor wanted to withdraw troops from Iraq. He called McCain "virtually indistinguishable" from Democratic contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and mocked McCain for being bereft of knowledge about the economy.
On Thursday, though, he focused on McCain's national security credentials, calling him "a man capable of leading our country in its toughest hour."
McCain's praise of Romney in return was equally striking. His campaign once called Romney's "desperate and flailing," and McCain's chief aide, Mark Salter, wrote of Romney late last year that "he does what any small-varmint-gun-totin,' civil-rights-marching, NRA-endorsed fantasy candidate would do: he questions someone else's credibility."
But Thursday, McCain said Romney ran "a hard, intensive, fine, honorable campaign" that eventually helped the senator "become a better candidate." He added: "I respect him enormously."
McCain has accumulated 843 delegates, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has gathered 242 in his ongoing long-shot campaign. One of them must get to 1,191 delegates in order to become the nominee when Republicans gather for their national convention in Minneapolis.
Romney's request is not binding; his delegates are free to vote for whomever they choose at the convention. But in practice, party officials said almost all of the delegates will probably follow Romney's wishes. Some states require their delegates to cast ballots for the candidate who won them on the first ballot.
If all 280 of Romney's delegates support McCain, the senator would have 1,123 delegates, just shy of the total needed. McCain will have to wait until at least March 4, when Texas, Ohio and other states vote, before he can collect the number needed to guarantee the nomination.
Huckabee, campaigning in Wisconsin ahead of Tuesday's vote there, has vowed to compete until McCain acquires 1,191 delegates. He has dismissed speculation that a paid speech he will give to a youth leadership group in the Cayman Islands on Saturday is a sign he is slowing down his campaign, and aides said he had no plans to drop out.
"We're staying in, no question," Bob Wickers, a top Huckabee adviser, said Thursday.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis put out a memo detailing how it is "mathematically impossible" for Huckabee to win, an assessment the former governor didn't dispute. But campaigning in Providence, R.I., before Romney's endorsement, McCain would not push out his rival.
"I respect Governor Huckabee," McCain said. "I respect his right to continue in his campaign."
Shear reported from Washington.