Facing the biggest day in the history of presidential primaries, White House hopefuls scattered Saturday from Los Angeles to the Deep South, promising results and offering reassurances on the last weekend before nearly half the country goes to the polls.
Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton pitched for Latino and black support in the Los Angeles area, then took a shot at Barack Obama by comparing him to President Bush. Obama ventured into red-state territory, drawing a crowd of 14,000 in Boise, where he assured Idaho gun owners he would not confiscate their weapons. He also picked up the endorsement of the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney left the campaign trail to attend the funeral of Gordon B. Hinckley, leader of the candidate’s Mormon church. Rivals John McCain and Mike Huckabee traveled the South, touting their conservative credentials.
The candidates are facing something unprecedented: a virtual national primary on Tuesday, when voters in 24 states cast ballots.
While some analysts say McCain could lock down the GOP nomination with a strong showing, Romney disagreed. “I intend to keep on battling,” the former Massachusetts governor told reporters, though he hinted staff cuts may lie ahead.
In Salt Lake City, Romney joined other Mormon luminaries at the Hinckley funeral, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The event drew renewed attention to Romney’s Mormon faith, a source of concern for some evangelical voters.
Before leaving Utah, Romney assailed McCain in satellite interviews with TV stations across the country. “This is a battle in some respects for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” he said. “Are we going to turn left, or are we going to stay in the house that Reagan built by holding firm to conservative principles?”
Later, Romney compared McCain to Clinton, citing the Arizona senator’s record on taxes, immigration and global warming, among other issues. “I don’t think we get to the White House by getting as close to Hillary Clinton as we can without being Hillary Clinton,” Romney told cheering supporters in Edina, Minn.
McCain all but ignored his rivals as he stumped in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. In Nashville, he called for spending cuts and lower taxes to buoy the sagging economy. Throughout the day, McCain swatted away reporters’ questions about criticism from prominent conservatives, insisting he will unite the party. At a pair of Southern stops, he sought to burnish his conservative credentials by stressing his opposition to abortion.
“You can count on me to protect the rights of the unborn in this country, " McCain told voters in Birmingham. In Atlanta, he vowed to appoint judges who are “clones” of conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Meantime, Huckabee took a thinly veiled swipe at Romney. “You really would like to get a president to agree with himself on some issues,” he said in Alabama, alluding to Romney’s conservative tilt since he began running for president.
The former Arkansas governor also took a rare shot at McCain, questioning the senator’s record on federal spending and his ability to bring change to Washington. “It doesn’t make sense that someone would be sent to the White House who has a Washington address,” Huckabee said.
On the Democratic side, Clinton devoted much of her day to kitchen-table issues.
The New York senator began with a 45-minute stop at the Inglewood home of Diane and Tony Wafford, where she spoke to a group of eight and fielded questions about the Iraq war, AIDS prevention and the mortgage crisis. Clinton made no direct mention of Obama, instead bringing up McCain and his open-ended commitment to keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.
“I am not going to take a back seat to anybody when it comes to national security and defending our country, but we have got to withdraw from Iraq,” Clinton said. “And I intend to do that starting within 60 days.”
Tony Wafford, who is African American, brought up the issue of race, offering a rationale for why African Americans should back Clinton instead of Obama, who is trying to become the nation’s first black president.
“I celebrate the fact that we have a brother that’s running,” said Wafford, an AIDS prevention activist. “Black people have always been able to be articulate and look good. You’re talking to one.” Clinton laughed and Wafford continued, “But that doesn’t make me qualified to be president of the United States.”
From Inglewood, Clinton traveled to a raucous rally before thousands of supporters at Cal State L.A. where she jabbed at Obama over healthcare, telling the audience: “I do not believe we should nominate any Democrat who will not stand here proudly today and commit to universal healthcare.” Obama has said the two share that goal.
Later, speaking to reporters en route to Tucson, Clinton compared Obama to Bush, saying he lacked specificity. “We cannot afford to elect someone as we did with George Bush and then be somewhat surprised by the decisions that are made and the direction he leads the country,” Clinton said. “The best way to avoid that is to have a candidate who tells you what she will do and is then held accountable.”
For his part, the Illinois senator ventured into deeply Republican Idaho, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. “They told me there weren’t any Democrats in Idaho,” Obama thundered to the crowded bleachers, balconies and arena floor at Boise State University. “That’s what they told me. But I didn’t believe them.”
Obama pushed a message of hope and change, saying: “This is the most consequential election in a generation. There’s such a thing as being too late, and that moment is almost upon us. . . . Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril, and the dream that so many generations fought for feels like it’s slowly slipping away.”
In a nod toward conservatives, he made a pledge to gun owners: “There are people who say, ‘Well, he doesn’t believe in the 2nd Amendment.’ . . . I have no intention of taking away folks’ guns.”
The endorsement of Los Angeles-based La Opinion could boost Obama, who has struggled to overcome Clinton’s support among Latinos. “Barack Obama has the sensibilities of a man from humble beginnings raised in a multicultural home,” the newspaper said. “He is the best option for a truly visionary change.”
Reporting by Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga with Obama, Seema Mehta with Romney, Peter Nicholas with Clinton and Maeve Reston with McCain. Staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan and the Associated Press also contributed to this report.