WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The top Republican presidential contenders spent the day before Tuesday's Florida primary flying from city to city around the Sunshine State — and letting fly with accusations as soon as they hit the ground.
Mitt Romney said John McCain is a tax-and-spend buddy of the Democrats.
McCain said Romney is a tax-and-spend liberal.
Both said the other is a flip-flopper: McCain on the president's tax cuts; Romney, who's been dogged by his reversal on abortion, on virtually everything else.
And so it went in stop after stop.
Playing it nice: third-place contenders former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani has acknowledged that he might lose and will make an announcement about his campaign's future on Wednesday.
Romney started at dawn at a West Palm Beach gas station, where he bashed McCain as a gas-tax-raiser because of his global-warming plan. Romney also used the loaded words "Clinton'' and "Lieberman'' to connect McCain with Democrats, while comparing himself to Ronald Reagan.
Romney listed three pieces of legislation bearing McCain's name: the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Romney called ineffective; a failed McCain-Kennedy immigration measure, which he called the "amnesty bill"; and a proposed McCain-Lieberman energy bill, which he said would increase energy costs for the typical Florida family by $1,000.
"He's known for some things that are frankly not conservative kinds of movements, but instead would have pulled the nation to the left," Romney told a throng of cheering supporters at a Fort Myers airport. "And I just don't think those liberal answers are what America is looking for. Not for the Republican Party or for any party for that matter. I believe that instead we should take our inspiration from Ronald Reagan and his vision of America."
In Jacksonville, McCain, surrounded by war vets and military figures who lauded his national security credentials, fired back, letting fly with the "L'' word: liberal.
"As the liberal governor of the state of Massachusetts, he raised taxes by $730 million. The state of Massachusetts was saddled with a quarter of a billion-dollar debt for his government-mandated health care system," McCain said.
"One thing I have to give Romney credit for is he's consistently taken both sides of any major issue; he has consistently flip-flopped on every major issue of the campaign."
McCain's national security roundtable at Atlantic Marine shipyard in Jacksonville was the first of four events in three cities. He planned to end the evening with a large rally in Tampa. After visiting a St. Petersburg polling station on Tuesday morning, he'll head south to Miami, where he'll have his primary night event at the Hilton at Miami International Airport.
The back-and-forth between McCain and Romney has been waged ever since a cordial Thursday TV debate in which none of the candidates really separated himself from the pack. So they went negative. And they named names.
And any name attached to an opponent became fair game. That was true even of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who issued a surprise endorsement of McCain, only to be dissed by one of his political pals, former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense. On Sunday, Bense suggested that the wildly popular governor isn't conservative enough and will therefore hurt McCain in the Panhandle among conservative voters.
Romney steered clear of Crist mentions, but decided to invoke the name of another well-known if less estimable politician in the eyes of Republicans: John Kerry. Romney prompted a laugh from the audience of phone-bank volunteers at the West Palm Beach event, saying he recalled the talk of a possible Kerry-McCain ticket for the Democratic Party in the 2004 presidential elections.
"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."
Huckabee, after a brief Pensacola appearance Monday, went silent in Florida almost all day as he stumped in Nashville, Tenn., before returning to Tampa. Giuliani cruised the state, smiling while all but acknowledging that he's finished in Florida and, perhaps, in his White House hunt.
Though he's acknowledged that his campaign is sinking, Giuliani is acting like a fighter without taking any swings.
The "Rocky" theme song, "Eye of the Tiger," cranked from speakers, and the crisp morning air buzzed with the murmur of voters. But a closer listen revealed the talk didn't bode well for Giuliani.
The crowd at the municipal airport in Sanford was small, maybe 100 people. And with Giuliani's poll numbers and momentum sagging, he badly needed a last-minute boost. He didn't seem to be getting it Monday morning. At his next event, in Clearwater, another disappointing crowd barely filled a corner of an airport hangar.
When asked what would happen after Tuesday's vote, Giuliani said, "Wednesday morning, we'll make a decision." His loyalists stuck close: actor Jon Voight, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
But the few voters who turned out Monday to see Giuliani speak in the morning were skeptical about his chances.
"I thought there would be more people here," said Anne Huttel, 19, a Clearwater voter who is studying at Florida State University. "It's important for our generation to go out to vote. We need to know what these candidates are all about."
Huttel then confessed that she's a Democrat and wanted to see Giuliani out of curiosity more than anything else.
Another woman in the crowd also confessed that she's a Democrat.
Giuliani was flying around the state, from the Orlando area to the St. Petersburg area, and later on to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. His message stayed the same: massive tax cuts, especially for corporations, energy independence and a bigger military.
But early Monday, there were fewer people listening. Giuliani wasn't saying anything new. Or mean.
(Negrete, Woods and Caputo report for The Miami Herald.)