- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Sen. John McCain earned the endorsement of one-time rival Mitt Romney yesterday, further securing his grasp on the Republican nomination, even as the Democratic contest grows more heated and polls show the candidates preparing to split upcoming primaries.

The Republicans said they want to use the ongoing Democratic battle to their advantage.

“Let us come together and make progress while they’re fighting,” Mr. Romney said at a press conference in Boston in which he also urged the about 280 delegates he won to instead support Mr. McCain in September’s nominating convention. “There’s no question in my mind this individual should be the next president of the United States, not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.”

Mr. Romney’s endorsement signals the Republican race is nearing its end, and those delegates allowed by state and party rules to change their support likely will, said Clark Stith, one of the eight pledged delegates Mr. Romney earned in Wyoming’s caucuses earlier this year.

“I will support John McCain,” said Mr. Stith, adding he was even a McCain delegate to the 2000 convention, when Mr. McCain lost the nomination to then-Gov. George W. Bush. “He’s an American hero, and he’s shown a lot of courage on a lot of tough issues.”

Those delegates, though their support cannot be tallied until finalized either in upcoming state conventions or at the nominating convention, would put Mr. McCain within a whisker of the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

“We share a common philosophy, a common goal, a common set of principles that have guided our Republican Party: less government, lower taxes, less regulation, strong national security,” Mr. McCain said in accepting Mr. Romney’s endorsement. Mr. Romney’s support follows that of Fred Thompson and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the other major contenders who have dropped out of the race.

On the Democratic side, the latest polls showed Mr. Obama, a senator from Illinois, continues to hold a lead in Wisconsin, which votes Tuesday along with Hawaii.

But Mrs. Clinton, a senator from New York, holds a commanding lead in Ohio, an even bigger prize, which votes March 4, along with Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont. A Rasmussen Reports survey taken Wednesday showed her leading 51 percent to 37 percent in the Buckeye State.

The poll showed a majority of Ohio Democratic voters placed the economy as their top issue, 35 percentage points ahead of the No. 2 issue, the Iraq war. Yesterday, Mrs. Clinton delivered an economic address in Columbus, countering Mr. Obama’s own economic speech the day before in Wisconsin.

“There’s the difference between us — speeches versus solutions. Talk versus action,” she said.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, began running an ad in Wisconsin responding to Mrs. Clinton’s charge he is ducking more debates. The ad says they have already debated 18 times and have two more debates pending.

For Republicans, the debate is nearly over.

Mr. McCain began the day with 843 delegates while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the next-closest challenger still in the race, holds 242, according to the Associated Press count.

Mr. Huckabee said yesterday he is still in the race until someone earns the 1,191 delegates needed to lock down the nomination.

“This goes to show there is a lot of ‘me too’ going on in the party, I just happen to be the leader of the ‘not me’ crowd,” Mr. Huckabee said.

Mr. Romney’s endorsement was some days in the making.

A Republican close to the McCain campaign told The Washington Times that at the behest of McCain senior adviser Charles L. Black, John Weaver had brokered the endorsement with Romney campaign manager Beth Myers and that campaign manager Rick Davis had been kept out of the loop.

There is no love lost between Mr. Davis, who survived mass firings at the McCain campaign earlier this year — cuts that ousted Mr. Weaver, who at one time was the McCain campaign”s top strategist and remains a longtime friend of the senator.

Mr. Weaver confirmed that he had been asked by Mr. Black to negotiate with Ms. Myers, whom he described as an old friend from the time in 1986 when they, along with Karl Rove, worked on Bill Clements’ Texas gubernatorial campaign.

“I was asked to reach out and begin negotiations,” said Mr. Weaver, who insisted that he had played only a small role in brokering the endorsement by Mr. Romney. Mr. Weaver said he did not know whether Mr. Davis knew of the negotiations or their outcome before the announcement yesterday.

At their joint press conference yesterday, Mr. Romney, who was brutal in his attacks on Mr. McCain during the campaign, did not disavow those differences on issues such as immigration and campaign-finance reform, though he said those differences paled in comparison to the differences with Democrats. But during the campaign, Mr. Romney frequently equated Mr. McCain with the Democrats, at one point saying it would be like voting for a “liberal Democrat course as president.”

And Mr. Romney may have already dented Mr. McCain as a general election candidate with his economic attacks, which drew Mr. McCain to acknowledge that “the issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should.” Political consultants say they expect that line to haunt Mr. McCain.

Brian DeBose contributed to this report.

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