| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Popular California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Thursday, giving the Arizona senator a boost in his drive to gain his party's nomination for the White House.
"He is a great American hero and an extraordinary leader. This is why I am endorsing him to be our next president of the United States," the actor-turned-politician said.
California is the largest prize among the 24 states that hold nominating contests on "Super Tuesday," February 5. McCain, the Republican front-runner, already leads state polls over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Republicans and Democrats are involved in a state-by-state contest to choose their candidates for the November general election to succeed President George W. Bush.
The two Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were also in California on Thursday ahead of an evening debate that will pit them alone against each other after former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards pulled out of the race on Wednesday.
Campaigning in the heavily Hispanic east side of Los Angeles, Obama touted his work as a community organizer in an attempt to win over a crucial Democratic constituency that currently favors Clinton.
"Over the past few weeks we've heard some cynical talk about how black folks and white folks and Latinos cannot come together," said the Illinois senator, who would be the first black president. "I take it seriously, because I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters that I worked alongside on the streets of Chicago more than two decades ago."
Obama aides, meanwhile, said they had raised $32 million in January, a huge funding haul that they said would enable them to compete in a drawn-out race.
Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady, has not yet released her January fund-raising figures.
ROMNEY BRUSHES OFF ENDORSEMENTS
Campaigning in Long Beach, California, Romney touted his business acumen and said he was not surprised that Schwarzenegger backed McCain.
"We've got endorsements and he's got endorsements," the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist said. "I think in most cases people make up their own mind."
Schwarzenegger, a centrist Republican in a state that has voted Democratic in recent presidential elections, praised McCain's ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
Schwarzenegger appeared with McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- who dropped out of the race on Wednesday and backed McCain -- at a solar panel factory, a site picked to draw attention to McCain's argument that global warming is a challenge that must be addressed.
McCain is more popular among independents and moderate Republicans, who make up a large share of California's electorate, but his strength among traditional conservative Republicans is still a question of debate.
McCain said he believed he could unite Republicans.
"We need all parts of our party together if we're going to win in November. I believe our party is beginning to realize that," he said.
Another Republican big-state governor, Rick Perry of Texas, endorsed McCain as well.
Candidates are required by midnight (0500 GMT Friday) to reveal fundraising totals for the last three months of 2007, which should give a snapshot of their financial strength before state-by-state voting began.
Republicans have trailed top Democratic candidates in fundraising so far, but Romney has not hesitated to draw on the $250 million fortune he amassed in his business career.
(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons and Jeff Mason in California, and John Whitesides and Andy Sullivan in Washington; writing by Andy Sullivan; editing by David Wiessler)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/