Mitt Romney and John McCain accused each other Monday of harboring liberal tendencies, a charge bordering on blasphemy in the increasingly caustic campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney struck first on the day before the winner-take-all Florida primary. He attacked the Arizona senator for his legislation reducing the role of money in politics, for his position on immigration and for his support of an energy bill that Romney said would have driven up consumer costs.
"If you ask people, 'Look at the three things Senator McCain has done as a senator,' if you want that kind of a liberal Democrat course as president, then you can vote for him," Romney told campaign workers. "But those three pieces of legislation, those aren't conservative, those aren't Republican, those are not the kind of leadership that we need as we go forward."
McCain answered swiftly in a statement to The Associated Press. He accused the former Massachusetts senator of "wholesale deception of voters. On every one of the issues he has attacked us on, Mitt Romney was for it before he was against it."
He added, "The truth is, Mitt Romney was a liberal governor of Massachusetts who raised taxes, imposed with Ted Kennedy a big government mandate health care 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 46 other states."
The exchange reflected the stakes in Tuesday's contest, a prelude to a virtual nationwide primary on Feb. 5.
Too close to call
The polls show McCain and Romney in a state race that is too close to call.
McCain collected endorsements in recent days from Florida's top two Republican elected officials, Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist, as well as the endorsements of a slew of Florida newspapers. The former Vietnam prisoner of war also has universal name recognition, as well as ownership of an issue important to the large number of veterans and active military in the state, national security.
But Romney has a get-out-the-vote effort in the state that has been at work on early voters as well as those seeking to cast absentee ballots.
A former businessman, he has campaigned as the man with the credentials to shore up the economy, a counter to McCain's national security credentials.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are also on the ballot, but recent surveys have shown them fading well back.
Romney was in West Palm Beach while McCain was in Jacksonville as they set out on their final full day of Florida campaigning.
Addressing phone bank workers who came out to the airport to see him off on a state flyaround, Romney said three key bills that McCain pushed in Congress steered the country on "a liberal Democrat course."
Romney said the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law "hit the First Amendment" with its controls over advertising spending.
He labeled last year's failed McCain-Kennedy immigration bill "the amnesty bill" because it would have allowed illegal immigrants to remain in the country indefinitely. Romney also said a 2003 McCain-Lieberman energy cap-and-trade bill would have increased energy costs for the average Florida family of four by $1,000.
Favored by Sen. Kerry?
He also drew chuckles from his audience when he recalled there was talk during the 2004 campaign of McCain teaming up with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee, on the opposing party's ticket.
"Had someone asked me that question, there would not have been a nanosecond of thought about it; it would have been an immediate laugh," Romney said. "And, of course, if someone asked him if he would consider me as a running mate, he would have also laughed immediately."
McCain likened Romney to Kerry over the weekend in a Web ad that superimposed the face of the former governor on an image of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate windsurfing.
In his statement, McCain said Romney "was for campaign finance reform, and even proposed taxing political contributions. He was for cap and trade and even proposed a tax that would have increased the price of gasoline at the pump. He called our immigration bill reasonable and not amnesty."
Giuliani, who has been spending about $1 million a week in advertising in Florida, said he remained hopeful.
"The only numbers I'm concerned about are on Election Day," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."
He said the fact he'd spent so much time in the state will help him on Tuesday. "There was a lot of early voting that was going on. I think we're going to do very well in Florida," he said.