By Steve Holland
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Presidential candidate John McCain urged skeptical conservatives on Friday to rally behind him and said he might clinch the Republican nomination in crucial "Super Tuesday" coast-to-coast voting.
"We would like to have everybody on board. We'd like to have a totally united party," he said.
Buoyed by a string of high-profile endorsements, including one from the Los Angeles Times, the Arizona senator sounded like a front-runner in talking to reporters, rejecting criticism of his conservative credentials from rival Mitt Romney and declaring Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton too inexperienced to be president.
Tuesday is the biggest day on the U.S. electoral calendar for choosing Republican and Democratic candidates for the November presidential election, with contests in 24 different states in all parts of the country.
Asked if the Republican race would effectively be over on Tuesday, McCain said he had asked for divine intervention.
"From what we see in the polls, I think that there's a very good chance that it'll be over on Tuesday. But I think there's still a lot of undecided voters. But I'm hoping. ... The sooner we can get that done, the sooner I can go to work on uniting the party," he said.
Speaking later to the Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner in a Chicago suburb, McCain sounded more confident: "I think we may be able to wrap it up next Tuesday."
His main rival, Romney, said he wouldn't hazard any predictions since he'd been so wrong in the past. "I really thought it would be over early in January," he said, declining to say what his strategy would be after February 5.
Romney was planning to campaign in Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and West Virginia in the coming days, skipping the major states of New York and New Jersey.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama also won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, and also picked up the backing of the liberal grass-roots organization MoveOn.org and the California chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
The two groups, which together claim nearly 4 million members, could give the Illinois senator organizational muscle as he seeks to close the gap with his better-known rival Hillary Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady.
Polls show Clinton leading Obama, who would be the first black president, in California, New York, New Jersey and many other states that will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday.
Clinton, speaking at San Diego State University, continued to hit Obama on universal health care, saying it was the biggest difference between the two Democratic candidates. "I believe with all my heart it is a moral right that people have quality affordable health care," she said.
Later, she invited supporters in the heart of Silicon Valley to bring their cell phones to weekend events to rally other Californians to vote for her.
"We're going to call a million Californians over this weekend," she said in San Jose.
Her campaign said heavy early voting by mail ballot -- one of their strategies to lock in support -- was a good sign in their efforts to win the nation's most populous state.
One day after a cordial debate during which the two largely directed their attacks at McCain, both Clinton and Obama seized on new data showing a drop in U.S. employment to tout their stimulus plans and take a swipe at President George W. Bush.
"Today's report that our economy actually lost jobs in January confirms my view that we are sliding into a second Bush recession," Clinton said.
McCain said the worsening economic picture proved a $150 billion stimulus plan cleared by the House of Representatives should be approved quickly, and that Congress should make the tax cuts passed by Congress in 2001 and 2003 permanent rather than letting them expire as scheduled in 2010.
McCain had voted against those tax cuts at the time, angering conservatives. Romney said on Friday that vote by McCain was "more out of the Democratic playbook than ours."
Obama criticized McCain's stance at an event in Albuquerque.
"There was a time when Sen. McCain courageously defied the fiscal madness of massive tax cuts for the wealthy in the midst of a costly war," Obama said. "But that was before he started running for the Republican nomination and fell in line."
McCain took aim at Obama and Clinton, saying their positions in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq showed their inexperience on national security matters.
(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons in Denver and Adam Tanner in California; Editing by Doina Chaicu)
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)
© Reuters 2008 All rights reserved
McCain upbeat on Super Tuesday
Sat, 02 Feb 2008 08:20:45 GMT