11th-hour vote sprint

In the countdown to the biggest primary day in American electoral history, candidates and their surrogates raced across the country Monday like athletes in the last quarter of a pivotal game.

With 24 states holding primaries or caucuses — and one Republican convention — today, presidential hopefuls and their supporters rallied crowds in last-minute appeals from the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, ahead in the polls but distrusted by some conservatives for his record on immigration, taxes and campaign finance reform, defended his GOP credentials even as he touted his electability.

“As president of the United States, I will preserve my proud conservative Republican credentials, but I will reach across the aisle and work together for the good of this country,” he said while campaigning at Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall.

At the landmark Pancake Pantry in Nashville, Tenn., meanwhile, a hoarse-voiced Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, told dozens of supporters that he is the lone candidate to speak for conservatives.

“Do you want a nominee who voted against the Bush tax cuts?” Romney asked dozens of diners eating fluffy buttermilk pancakes and sipping coffee at the diner near Vanderbilt University.

They answered, “Nooo!”

“Do you want to have a nominee who represents the conservative principles and keeps us inside the house that Ronald Reagan built?” he asked.

The crowd cheered.

In third place in the polls and lagging in media attention, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also stumped in Tennessee, wrapping himself in the mantle of the “underdog” New York Giants, who bested the undefeated New England Patriots in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“Everybody had already put up their World Champion Patriot posters, and gosh, it didn’t quite work out like that,” Huckabee said on “Fox &Friends.” “I think this election is more fluid than people think.”

For the Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois spoke at a rally at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, with Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President Kennedy, at his side.

Obama said he looked forward to a general election campaign against McCain.

“This is a choice between the past and the future,” he said, “and if I’m running against Sen. McCain, I want … to go forward, not backward.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, taking a break from daytime campaigning, prepared for an appearance on CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” and a one-hour interactive town-hall meeting Monday evening to be shown on the Hallmark Channel.

Speaking Monday at the Yale Child Study Center, where she worked as a law student, Clinton nearly lost her voice and coughed at length, showing the strain of campaigning.

“I feel OK; my voice decided to go AWOL on me,” she recently told reporters aboard her campaign plane. “We’ve been trying all kinds of remedies.”

Bloomberg in 2008?

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may soon begin a massive operation to get on the ballot in up to 15 states, even though he may not decide until May whether to run for president, according to associates.

They say the mayor and his operatives are actively laying necessary groundwork for an independent campaign and are in no hurry to decide whether or not to run.

Associated Press

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