Candidates trade some tough talk

Jan 29, 2008

Candidates trade some tough talk

On the last day of Florida’s most intense Republican primary campaign in decades, the invectives began flying at dawn.

Mitt Romney laced into chief rival John McCain for supporting caps on pollutants that cause global warming and tarred him as an ally of Democratic causes. McCain snarled that the ”liberal” former governor of Massachusetts has flip-flopped on “every major issue of the campaign.”

The backbiting continued in spurious e-mails and phone calls: Romney supports relations with Fidel Castro. McCain won’t back conservative judges.

An anti-abortion group also joined the fray, claiming responsibility for more than half a million e-mails that assail Romney’s one-time support for abortion rights.

Displaced to the sidelines was Rudy Giuliani, lagging in third place in the polls, who hinted that he faces a hard choice if Florida continues his losing streak.

”Wednesday morning, we’ll make a decision,” said Giuliani, who tried to pump up thinning crowds across the state with the theme song from the movie Rocky III.

Hours before the vote that will anoint a GOP frontrunner, McCain will stump with Gov. Charlie Crist at a St. Petersburg precinct before heading to Miami to watch the election returns. The late embraces from the popular governor and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, along with a slew of newspaper endorsements, have made the self-described maverick look more like an establishment figure.


”He’s gotten some momentum in the final days, but it’s gotten really, really negative. I think that’s going to have an impact on McCain,” said Republican lobbyist and political website founder Justin Sayfie, who hasn’t taken sides. “Romney is hitting him on all of the key issues and clearly trying to peel off conservative Republicans.”

If McCain withstands the attacks, winning his first Republican-only primary will help him make a persuasive case that he can build a winning coalition with independents in November. If Romney wins, McCain will endure fundraising strains as the race spreads into 19 states voting Feb. 5.

Romney, who has tapped into his personal fortune, has outspent his rivals with roughly $5 million in television advertising in Florida.

”McCain’s campaign has been running like the movie business, where your current movie funds your next movie,” said political advertising tracker Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence. “He’s kind of living hand to mouth, which could be a big advantage for Romney.”

Romney, who has tried to appease voters’ concerns about the economy by portraying himself as a corporate turnaround artist, flew by charter plane Monday to rallies in six cities in roughly 12 hours.

He started out at sunrise at a West Palm Beach gas station, a backdrop chosen to highlight his opposition to carbon emissions limits that McCain is sponsoring with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent. Romney also bashed the Arizona senator for writing legislation with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy that would have allowed illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship.

”He’s known for some things that are frankly not conservative kind of movements, but instead would have pulled the nation to the left,” Romney told cheering supporters in Fort Myers. “And I just don’t think those liberal answers are what America is looking for.”

Flanked by veterans and military leaders, McCain defended his conservative credentials at a campaign stop in Jacksonville. McCain accused Romney of changing his positions on campaign finance reform and immigration.

”One thing I have to give Romney credit for is he’s consistently taken both sides of any major issue,” McCain said.

The animosity was echoed in a snarky Internet ad titled ”A Tale of Two Mitts” and a radio spot that said Romney would falter against Democrat Hillary Clinton in a potential matchup.

Elaine Fandino of Greenacres said an unidentified caller told her Monday that Romney favors trading with Castro, though he has consistently favored the Cuban embargo. McCain’s campaign vehemently denied sponsoring the call.

”I don’t like them spreading these lies,” said Fandino, who is a Cuban American.

Romney, for his part, was also on offense. Susie Wiles of Jacksonville said she’s received five calls savaging McCain in the last 48 hours.

Wiles said the latest call claimed Romney is the only true conservative and has always been pro-life, though he used to support abortion rights.


”It’s a big phone operation, and it’s all push calls,” said Wiles, a McCain supporter. ”There’s no mention of Rudy, so I guess they don’t see him as a threat at all.” Giuliani has outpaced McCain in television advertising overall, but McCain has overtaken his spending in recent days, said Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence. He said that as of Friday, Giuliani was spending only $101,000 a day — one-third of what McCain and Romney were spending.

”At this point, it’s really about volume and repetition, and if he’s being passed by McCain that’s not a good sign,” Tracey said. “His own campaign has said Florida or bust, and with the poll numbers going in same direction as his media buys, that suggests there isn’t any gas in the tank anymore.”

Mike Huckabee, who has dipped in and out of Florida over the past week, is scheduled to stop in Tampa Tuesday morning before flying to St. Louis. Ron Paul has not appeared in Florida since Thursday’s debate in Boca Raton.

Miami Herald staff writer Oscar Corral contributed to this report.