JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Mitt Romney and John McCain accused each other Monday of being liberals, a charge tantamount to blasphemy in the caustic campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

One day before the crucial Florida primary, Romney lambasted the Arizona senator for a host of “liberal answers” to the country’s problems. Among them: McCain’s legislation curbing money in politics, his more forgiving view of illegal immigrants and his backing of an energy bill that Romney said would raise consumer costs.

“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,” Romney said in Fort Myers, Fla.

McCain accused Romney of “wholesale deception of voters” and of flip-flopping on the issues.

“On every one of the issues he has attacked us on, Mitt Romney was for it before he was against it,” McCain said.

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.”

McCain told a Jacksonville audience that Romney has been “entirely consistent,” then quipped: “He’s consistently taken at least two sides of every issue, sometimes more than two.”

Since Friday, McCain has been running negative radio commercials that criticize Romney. The campaign also has a Web ad superimposing Romney’s face on the image of a windsurfing Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

The Romney campaign said voters have been receiving automated phone calls that say Romney supports taxpayer-funded abortions and opposes President Bush’s tax cuts, neither of which is true. Another set of calls from an unknown critic claim Romney favors direct talks with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, said Mandy Fletcher, Romney’s Florida campaign director.

Acrimony has replaced the recent civility of the GOP race as the candidates pin their hopes on Florida’s primary and then a weeklong sprint to 20-plus states and more than 1,000 delegates at stake on Feb. 5. The latest polls have McCain and Romney essentially tied, with Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee also on the ballot.

Several factors are certain to affect the outcome. The Florida primary, with its winner-take-all 57 delegates, is open only to Republican voters; McCain’s other wins, in New Hampshire and South Carolina, were fueled in part by independents able to cast ballots in the GOP contest.

Florida also has a property tax relief proposal on the ballot that could boost GOP turnout. State polls show Republicans favoring the measure by a nearly two-thirds margin.

And, of course, this is Florida, home to the disputed presidential election of 2000 that gave George W. Bush the presidency by a mere 537 votes. The Justice Department said it would monitor the primary election in Broward County, the south Florida seat of Ft. Lauderdale, to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

Earlier in West Palm Beach, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, drew chuckles when he recalled there was talk in 2004 of McCain teaming with Kerry on the opposing party’s ticket.

Romney used his resume to counter McCain’s record on national security, which is near and dear to the large proportion of veterans and active military in Florida. A former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, McCain also has near-universal name recognition.

Each has dredged up earlier quotes to criticize the other; Romney thumped McCain for admitting less familiarity with the economy than with foreign affairs, and McCain tried to lump Romney with congressional Democrats because he supported private timetables in the Iraq war.

In Jacksonville, McCain toured the grounds of Atlantic Marine, which builds Navy ships and commercial vessels, then held a forum with national security experts including former CIA director Jim Woolsey and former Veterans Affairs secretary Tony Principi.

Romney taped an interview to air on MSNBC Tuesday in which he said McCain’s recent criticism over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq reflected a rival “kind of desperate here at the end.”

He also criticized McCain for suggesting there were more wars in the U.S.’s future.

“Our great presidents have not been generals or wannabe generals or anything like that,” Romney said. “They’ve been people who have great judgment, capacity to do the difficult things in challenging times.”

Also campaigning in Florida was Giuliani, who led throughout 2007 but rapidly lost ground once voting began this month.

Despite the polls, Giuliani insisted he can come from behind: “This is a place where we have to test ourselves,” Giuliani told reporters between campaign appearances. “The winner of Florida will win the nomination; we’re going to win Florida.”

Asked if a loss would end his campaign, Giuliani said: “Wednesday morning, we’ll make a decision.”


Associated Press Writers Glen Johnson in West Palm Beach, Fla., Liz Sidoti in Jacksonville, Fla., and Devlin Barrett in Sanford, Fla., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-01-28-08 1746EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Daily Headlines

  • Sign up and get the top stories to begin the day delivered to your inbox at 6 a.m.