Candidates make last-minute pleas
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 10:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 10:38 a.m.
TAMPA, Fla. - John McCain and Mitt Romney made final-hour appeals to vote for them — and not the other guy — as Florida Republicans cast ballots Tuesday in a pivotal primary.
"I'm feeling good. Endorsements matter," McCain said, standing alongside his chief supporter in the state, Gov. Charlie Crist, at a waterside St. Petersburg polling station.
As voting began, the four-term Arizona senator kept up his weeklong criticism of Romney's economic record as a one-term Massachusetts governor. But, he said: "The real key, I think, here in Florida is who can keep America safe. Who is it that has got the experience and background and knowledge to take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism? Governor Romney has no experience there."
Romney was greeting voters elsewhere.
"If you want somebody who understands how Washington works, you can elect the other guy. But if you want somebody who understands how America works, elect me and our team," Romney said in a direct appeal to Floridians at an airport hanger in Jacksonville on Monday night.
"This thing is this close," he said, holding two fingers an inch or so apart. "It's very, very close. And the difference tomorrow is going to be that we have people across Florida who are working to get their friends to go vote."
Florida's primary could solidify one of the two as the GOP front-runner; each hopes a Florida win will provide a burst of energy heading into the virtual national primary next week. The Tuesday contest offers the winner the state's 57 delegates to GOP nominating convention and serves as a gateway to the 20-plus states with nominating contests on Feb. 5.
Voting began at 7 a.m. EST, but more than a million ballots had already been cast, either through the early voting that began Jan. 14 or in absentee ballots returned by mail. A proposed state constitutional amendment on property taxes on the ballot could boost turnout.
McCain and Romney hammered each other on the economy and national security all week; critical phone calls, negative radio ads, and bitter, personal exchanges marked the final days before the primary.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has lost six straight contests, is seeking a win to remain a viable candidate. But he is far behind in the polls, and a poor showing could force him to abandon his bid. Also lagging is Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who hasn't won since the Iowa caucuses nearly a month ago and hardly competed in Florida.
The contest is so tight between McCain and Romney that just about any factor could tip the balance.
More so than his rival, Romney has a get-out-the-vote effort as well as early and absentee voting programs. He's spent considerable time and money in the state in the past year. The recent focus on the economy works in his favor; he's been pushing his private-sector credentials and arguing that he's the most capable to turn the country away from the brink of recession.
Conversely, McCain is backed by Florida's top two Republican elected officials, Sen. Mel Martinez and Crist, and has endorsements from a slew of Florida newspapers. The former Vietnam prisoner of war also has universal name recognition, as well as ownership of an issue important to the large number of veterans and active military in the state — national security.
Terri Rose, 50, a Republican voting in Neptune Beach, said she cast her ballot for McCain.
"I think he would be the best on the security issues," Rose said.
McCain is expected to do well in areas with a strong military presence — Pensacola, Jacksonville, Tampa. He's also hoping for a strong turnout in Miami, with its heavy Cuban-American population, and Orlando, a melting pot. Romney is fighting for the southwest part of the state around Fort Myers and Sarasota; it's much like the Midwest, where he was raised. Another likely stronghold, Palm Beach and Broward County, home to many Northeastern transplants.
Up for grabs is the corridor along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Daytona Beach, a swing area that has seen much growth and is home to roughly two-thirds of the Republican primary vote.
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