Sen. John McCain barnstormed through a skeptical South on Saturday, campaigning for a Super Tuesday knockout in the Republican presidential race. Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton worked the West on the final weekend before primaries and caucuses in more than 20 states.
"I assume that I will get the nomination of the party," McCain told reporters, the front-runner so confident that he decided to challenge rival Mitt Romney in his home state of Massachusetts.
Clinton stressed pocketbook issues, the home mortgage crisis in a discussion with voters in a working class neighborhood, and health care at a noisy rally attended by former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson. "This is a cause that is the central passion of my public life," she said, and jabbed at Obama on the issue.
"My opponent will not commit to universal health care. I do not believe we should nominate any Democrat who will not stand here proudly today and commit to universal health care," she said. Her comment is a continuation of a lengthy debate over which candidate's plan would result in wider coverage among the millions who now lack it.
Obama stopped in Idaho, where caucuses offer a mere 18 delegates on Tuesday, and he worked to reassure Westerners on two fronts.
"I've been going to the same church for more than 20 years, praising Jesus," he told an audience in Boise, warning his listeners not to believe e-mails that falsely say he is a Muslim.
In a region of the country where hunting is a way of life, he also said he has "no intention of taking away folks' guns." The Illinois senator did not mention his support for gun control legislation.
At stake: 1,681 delegates
The two remaining Democratic rivals compete in primaries in 15 states as well as caucuses in seven more plus American Samoa on Tuesday, the busiest day of this or any other nominating campaign. A total of 1,681 delegates is at stake, including 370 in California alone, and the two campaigns have said they do not expect either side to emerge with a lock on the nomination.
Both have already begun turning their attention to Feb. 12 primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Obama told reporters on a flight from Boise to Minneapolis that he thinks the race for votes on Tuesday is getting tighter, even though the schedule seems to favor the more well-known Clinton. "I don't think that there is any doubt that we've made some progress. I don't think that there's any doubt that Senator Clinton — she's still the favorite," he said on the way to a rally that drew 20,000 people to the Target Center.
Different story for GOP candidates
The Republican political landscape is different for McCain, Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with nine of the 21 contests on the ballot awarding delegates winner-take-all to the top vote-getter.
Maine Republicans voted in caucuses during the day, a final tune-up before Super Tuesday.
And Clinton, Obama, Huckabee and Paul agreed to participate via satellite in a televised youth forum during the evening. The event was sponsored by MTV, The Associated Press and MySpace.
McCain's rivals have essentially conceded him New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Arizona, five winner-take-all states with 251 delegates combined.
That left McCain free to spend Saturday in Huckabee's probable area of strength, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. All three are home to large numbers of evangelical voters who have been slow to swing behind the Arizona senator on his march through the early primaries and caucuses.
He worked to reassure conservatives, telling them he had a 24-year record in the Senate of "fighting for the rights of the unborn" and boasting he never asked for a single earmark or pork barrel project for his home state of Arizona.
As for the slowing economy, he said the Senate must "stop fooling around and pass the president's stimulus package .... and restore some confidence."
McCain made no mention of Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is his closest pursuer in the race, or of Huckabee, the Baptist preacher-turned-politician.
In Tennessee, McCain made a pitch for the supporters of campaign dropout Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator. "He is a fine man. I had the distinct pleasure and honor of sitting next, my desk right next to Fred Thompson for eight years in the United States Senate," he said. Thompson has not endorsed any of the remaining candidates.
Before campaigning in Minnesota, Romney attended the funeral of Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in Salt Lake City. The former Massachusetts governor would be the first Mormon to sit in the White House if he wins the presidency.
Huckabee campaigned across Alabama, taking thinly veiled swipes at McCain and Romney.
"You really would like to get a president to agree with himself on some issues," he said in a reference to Romney, who has switched positions on key issues since he ran against Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994. As for McCain and the need to control federal spending, he said, "It doesn't make sense that someone would be sent to the White House who has a Washington address."
McCain emerged as the front-runner in the Republican race with a victory in the winner-take-all primary in Florida last Tuesday. In the days since, he has begun collecting endorsements from establishment figures ranging from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to former Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma.
But a significant number of conservatives remain vocally opposed to him, and Romney hopes to take advantage of their unwillingness to swing behind a longtime party maverick.
"It's going to destroy the Republican Party," radio show host Rush Limbaugh has said of a McCain nomination. Ann Coulter, the conservative author and commentator, has said she would prefer Clinton in the White House over McCain, adding, "I will campaign for her."
Complicating Romney's challenge is the continuing presence of Huckabee. As long as the Baptist minister is running, Romney strategists concede the two men will split the votes of conservatives who are not ready to back McCain.
"I believe that the majority of Republican Party conservatives are convinced that I'm best equipped to lead this country, unify our party and take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism," McCain told reporters.
He confidently planned a weekend appearance in Boston, and gained an endorsement from Paul Cellucci, who was governor of Massachusetts before Romney.