BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Sen. John McCain said yesterday that he expects to be the nominee of his party as a cascade of Republican endorsements added to the sense that he is on the verge of knocking out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Super Tuesday.
McCain assumed a nominee's mantle as he crossed the South yesterday, touting his high-profile endorsements and talking about how he will unify the Republican Party after Tuesday's de facto national primary day.
"I believe that the majority of the Republican Party conservatives are convinced that I'm best equipped to lead this country, unify our party and take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism," he told reporters in Nashville.
In Birmingham, he flatly declared: "I'm the most electable."
His chief opponent, Romney, refused to say whether he would continue his campaign after Tuesday, and spent the day attending the funeral of Mormon Church President Gordon Hinckley in Salt Lake City. The funeral's timing cost Romney an entire day on the campaign trail and served as a reminder of his faith to those evangelical voters who are suspicious of his Mormon background.
Despite the lost day, Romney won the presidential preference voting among Maine Republicans yesterday in the party's municipal caucuses, which were heavily attended across the state.
Romney had a little over half of the vote with about two-thirds of the towns holding caucuses reporting. McCain worked to keep his vote above 20 percent, trailed by Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee.
Republican caucuses were being held in about 410 Maine municipalities, most yesterday. A few dozen towns, especially in northern Maine's Aroostook County, held caucuses Friday, and a few more were set for today and later this month.
Maine has 18 delegates to send to the Republican National Convention.
Despite a sleet storm the night before that left much of the state coated with slush and ice yesterday morning, cars jammed the parking lot outside an Augusta elementary school where Kennebec County municipalities were caucusing.
At a stop in Minnesota, Romney called his caucus victory in Maine "a people's victory," pointing out that it came despite McCain endorsement by the state's two U.S. senators.
"It is, in my view, also an indication that conservative change is something that the American people want to see. I think you're going to see a growing movement across this country to get behind my candidacy and to propel this candidacy forward," Romney said. "I think it's a harbinger of what you're going to see on Tuesday."
Kim Pettengill, who has been a party activist for more than three decades, said yesterday's was the largest Kennebec County caucus turnout since 1980, the year Ronald Reagan won his first GOP nomination for president.
Party Executive Director Julie O'Brien said other counties reported similarly heavy turnouts.
The Maine Democrats hold their presidential preference votes at municipal caucuses on Feb. 10.
McCain, who lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000, said he expected to win the nomination after Tuesday's results.
"I hope I'm not too confident about Tuesday," he said, when asked about his words. "I'm guardedly optimistic."
Still, McCain is already looking beyond Tuesday, talking about how he will debate the Democratic nominee in the general election and bringing Republicans together to win in November.
"I've got to work hard to get as much of the party as I can, because we have an uphill battle for November," he said. "Look at the numbers of people who say Democrats do a better job at a, b, c, d and e."
McCain's rivals have essentially conceded him New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Arizona, five winner-take-all states with 251 delegates combined.
That left McCain free to spend yesterday in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
All three are home to large numbers of evangelical voters who have been slow to swing behind the Arizona senator on his march through the early primaries and caucuses.
He worked to reassure conservatives, telling them he had a 24-year record in the Senate of "fighting for the rights of the unborn" and boasting that he never asked for a single earmark or pork barrel project for his home state of Arizona.
McCain reminded Southerners in the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center that he supports their core concerns.
"We will have only justices on the bench who strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States," he told the cheering crowd.
Jill Zuckman, John McCormick and Jason George write for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.