McCain's campaign fired back, saying Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, "will say anything to anyone at any time if he thinks it will help him politically."
One day before the Florida GOP primary, which could propel one of them to the front of the pack, the two were mixing it up like prizefighters before a championship match. Their punches and counterpunches dominated the Republican field, forcing the other candidates to fight for attention.
The campaign of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced the launch of a new Web video titled "Not Endorsed." Fresh off a string of newspaper editorial board endorsements for McCain, the Giuliani video argues that his failure to win endorsements by liberal newspapers is a tribute to his conservative policies.
"When you're responsible for cutting people's taxes by an incredible 17% ... and announce a plan to give Americans the biggest tax cuts in history.... When you fight to appoint conservative federal judges ... want to grow America's military to make sure our families are protected ... demand that new citizens learn to read, write and speak English ... and that welfare recipients work for the benefits ... you're the last person on Earth to be endorsed by the liberal New York Times," the video voice-over said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, after a morning appearance in Pensacola, left Florida for Tennessee, a Southern state that may be more hospitable to the Huckabee message and one of 22 states with primary or caucus contests on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday.
"We have the numbers and organization statewide to compete in Minnesota," said campaign coordinator Marianne Stebbins. "We plan on surprising many people on Feb. 5."
In his early morning campaign event, Romney said McCain was best known for legislation co-sponsored with Democrats involving campaign finance reform, illegal immigration and a "cap and trade" system to address global warming.
"Sen. McCain is known for three piece of legislation. Twenty-five years, three pieces of legislation. What are they?" he told scores of supporters at the rally at an airstrip. "McCain-Feingold, which hit the 1st Amendment. All right. And then McCain-Kennedy, the amnesty bill. The last one, McCain-Lieberman, which adds about $1,000 a year to the cost of fuel and energy for the average Florida household."
"Look at the three things Sen. McCain has done as senator," Romney said. "If you want that kind of a liberal, democratic course as president, then you can vote for him. But those three pieces of legislation, those aren't conservative, those aren't Republican, those are not the kind of leadership we need as we go forward."
At a dawn news conference at a Texaco gas station earlier, Romney assailed McCain's global-warming proposal as an ineffective, symbolic measure that would push polluting companies and jobs overseas to nations that do not regulate emissions, doing little good for the environment while costing the typical Florida family about $1,000 a year.
McCain's campaign issued a statement quoting Romney as saying two years ago that a "cap and trade" system to address climate change "is good business." Now, said communications director Jill Hazelbaker, "desperate to attack John McCain in the heat of a political campaign, Mitt Romney has changed his position once again."
Said McCain: "The truth is, Mitt Romney was a liberal governor of Massachusetts who raised taxes, imposed with Ted Kennedy a big, government-mandated healthcare plan that is now a quarter of a billion dollars in the red, and managed his state's economy incompetently, leaving Massachusetts with less job growth than 47 other states."
"He has consistently flip-flopped on every issue," McCain said.
Both candidates were spending the day in Florida, a polyglot of voting blocs as varied as the Cuban community in Little Havana and Miami's Jewish "snowbirds," as well as the more conservative voters in the panhandle in the north of the state. With them come a rich block of 57 delegates in Florida's winner-take-all primary.