DENVER — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Friday that evangelicals who are inclined to back rival Mike Huckabee would be wasting their votes and handing the party nomination to a "liberal," John McCain.
Evangelicals can "vote for Mike Huckabee and feel good about their vote," the former governor of Massachusetts told a Missouri TV station. "But they're basically saying, 'We're going to give the conservative vote -- we're going to divide it in half, give some to Mike Huckabee, give some to Mitt Romney.' "
Huckabee's strength among evangelicals has thwarted Romney's efforts to unite the party's conservative wing behind his candidacy. McCain faced a similar problem with moderates who backed Rudolph W. Giuliani, but the former New York mayor dropped out of the race Wednesday and endorsed McCain.
Romney's remarks came as the Republican presidential hopefuls scrambled across the nation's heartland to build support in the 21 states that will hold GOP nominating contests Tuesday.
McCain rolled out endorsements from Steve Forbes, a GOP presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, and others as he tried to cement the impression that the party's establishment was overcoming its reluctance to embrace him. The Arizona senator flew from Los Angeles to St. Louis and Chicago.
Romney dashed from San Diego to Denver and Salt Lake City. Huckabee hit stops in Oklahoma, where he hammered Romney on abortion and gay rights, and in Missouri.
With a vast election map and just a few days left to campaign, the candidates tried to expand their reach with back-to-back satellite interviews with far-flung TV stations, including one in Fargo, N.D., and another in Peoria, Ill.
"I was waiting for yours, because if I can play in Peoria . . . " McCain joked to WHOI.
Romney, speaking from San Diego to KYTV in Springfield, Mo., pointed out the danger that Huckabee posed to his candidacy as he sought to offer conservatives a rationale for supporting him. He framed the race as a battle between himself and McCain. "If you vote for someone besides one of those two people, you're basically not getting the bang for your vote buck," Romney said.
He called McCain "too liberal" on immigration, taxes, campaign finance restrictions and global warming, saying the senator's energy plan would boost gasoline prices by 50 cents a gallon.
"It basically flows from the sort of blame-America-first-for-global-warming philosophy that some people have," Romney said before taking off for Denver, where he told hundreds of supporters at a car dealership that McCain was a "wonderful person" and a "national hero."
McCain all but ignored Romney as he campaigned in Missouri and Illinois. On a charter flight from St. Louis to Chicago, McCain mentioned Forbes and other conservative supporters as he outlined his quest for acceptance by the party establishment.
"I know I've got work to do," he said. "I understand that. I think we can do it, and I think we can unite the party."
As for one of his harshest critics on conservative radio, Rush Limbaugh, McCain acknowledged he rarely listened to his show.
"There's a certain trace of masochism in my family," McCain said. "But not that deep."
In Oklahoma City, Huckabee pounded Romney over social issues. Speaking to 600 supporters crammed into a restaurant, the former governor of Arkansas said Romney was once "very pro-choice" and had supported "strong positions for same-sex relations," the Associated Press reported.
"He said on television that he would do more for the gay-lesbian agenda than Ted Kennedy," Huckabee said. "That's pretty bold."
Huckabee also mocked Romney for vowing to protect abortion rights when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, then campaigning for president as a staunch opponent of abortion.
"To say you never thought about the origins of human life until you were nearly 60 years old, I find that hard to believe," Huckabee said.
Huckabee also started running a cable TV ad that emphasizes religion.
"Faith doesn't just influence me," Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, says to the camera. "It really defines me."
Mehta reported from Denver, Reston from St. Louis and Chicago, and Finnegan from Washington.