Sunday, February 3, 2008

As Mitt Romney took yesterday morning off from campaigning to attend the funeral of the Mormon church’s leader, Sen. John McCain — his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination — announced he will campaign tomorrow in Boston, seeking to capture voters in Mr. Romney’s political back yard.

Mr. Romney served one term as governor of Massachusetts — so victory in that state’s primary Tuesday would be huge for Mr. McCain, who is seeking a knockout punch in that day’s slate of more than 20 primaries and caucuses.

“I assume that I will get the nomination of the party,” Mr. McCain told reporters. He has won three primaries, including the big-state prize of Florida, and is in a strong position going into this week’s contests.

Yesterday he campaigned in the southern states of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia — turf that another rival candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is hoping to dominate.

Mr. Huckabee continued his pivot on the issue of immigration yesterday, embracing the entire checklist Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions has offered as a test to see whether candidates are serious about stopping illegal immigration and avoiding amnesty.

Later in the day, Mr. Huckabee spoke to young voters on an forum, fielding questions about his religion, the youth vote and his election prospects.

He said nobody has garnered a majority of delegates to win the Republican nomination and “until someone convinces me I can’t get 1,191, I’m staying in the race.”

MTV took instant online polls during the program, and 10 percent of those voting said they were backing him. Twenty-six percent said they are more likely to back him after hearing him, and 7 percent said they are less likely to vote for him. The rest already were settled on another candidate.

Rep. Ron Paul, another Republican still in the race, also took his libertarian philosophy to the MTV forum. At one point a young woman asked him how the president should help bring down the cost of birth-control pills.

“Not by robbing somebody else that’s not interested in this subject. That would never be a justification for taxing somebody to do good for somebody else,” Mr. Paul told her. He said the solution isn’t government intervention, but rather to change U.S. monetary policy, which he said would control inflation.

Mr. Paul must have struck a chord with his remarks. On the issue of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, the MTV instant poll showed 61 percent trusted him “to effectively deal with the Darfur genocide,” even though Mr. Paul said the U.S. has no role to play.

Campaigning in Alabama, Mr. Huckabee continued to position himself as the outsider.

“It doesn’t make sense that someone would be sent to the White House who has a Washington address,” he said.

Being part of the Washington establishment doesn’t appear to faze Mr. McCain, who has a reputation as a maverick but is also backed by much of the Republican establishment at this point.

And with the front-runner’s tag firmly applied to him, Mr. McCain continued to outpace Mr. Romney in endorsements yesterday, including adding one of Mr. Romney’s predecessors in Massachusetts, former Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci.

Mr. McCain also collected the endorsement of former Sen. Don Nickles, who notched one of the most conservative voting records during his 24 years in the Senate, and he won the backing of a handful of House members, including Rep. Peter T. King of New York, who is the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee and wrote the Secure Fence Act that calls for fencing 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mr. Romney won the backing of one of Mr. McCain’s Senate colleagues, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rep. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey. On Friday, Mr. Romney collected the endorsement of former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has been harshly critical of Mr. McCain, saying his former colleague was usually an impediment to conservative causes.

Mr. Romney had a light day of campaigning yesterday, spending the early part attending the funeral of the Mormon church’s president, Gordon B. Hinckley, in Salt Lake City. Mr. Romney, a Mormon himself, would be the first president from that religion.

Later in the day, Mr. Romney campaigned in Minnesota, telling reporters he doesn’t think Tuesday’s primaries will settle the nomination.

“We’re still early in the process, seven states in. We’ve got 22 coming up on Tuesday. I expect to pick up a number of those states, and I don’t think anybody’s going to have the necessary number as of Tuesday night, and so we have time,” he said.

Mr. Romney last night claimed victory in Maine’s nonbinding caucuses, which have been going on the past two days.

“Like many Americans, the people of Maine are tired of Washington promises made but broken,” Mr. Romney said in a statement released with most of the votes cast. A few Maine precincts still vote today.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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