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Looking to the Right: Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney wait for their Sept. 5 debate to begin at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have been sparring all week over which one is tougher on taxes and spending. Independent observers say both men are pretty tough, even if their records are not quite as pure as their campaign boasts would suggest.
In recent days, Romney launched the biggest advertising blitz New Hampshire has seen this year, in order to let Granite State voters know he's taken a pledge against raising taxes.
"I signed the tax pledge, because I want everyone to know where I stand. We've got to get taxes down," Romney said in one radio spot.
That could be a tough sell, though, as many Republicans in New Hampshire know Romney primarily as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
"Massachusetts is lovingly referred to as Taxachusetts by people in New Hampshire," says pollster Dick Bennett of the American Research Group in Manchester. "There are Republican voters who say to us that [Romney] can't be that conservative if he were elected governor."
Over the past week, Romney and Giuliani have been fighting a long-range battle of press releases over their records on taxes and spending. The fight turned to close quarters in Michigan Tuesday, when Giuliani shared a stage with Romney at a GOP debate.
"I brought taxes down by 17 percent," Giuliani said. "Under [Romney], taxes went up 11 percent per capita. I led. He lagged."
"It's baloney," Romney replied. In order to cut taxes, he says, you have to cut spending.
And Romney chastised Giuliani for challenging the line-item veto, when President Clinton used it to cut Medicaid spending on New York City hospitals.
"Mayor Giuliani took the line-item veto that the president had all the way to the Supreme Court, and took it away from the president of the United States," Romney said. "I think that was a mistake."
In fighting for the title of "Most Fiscally Conservative," neither man is above padding his resume.
Romney did try to cut the income tax in Massachusetts, as he claims, but he failed to persuade the Democratic legislature. And some of his spending cuts merely shifted costs onto local governments, says President Mike Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
"I give him some pluses and some minuses. The various claims that he and Giuliani and others have made clearly don't reflect these shades of grey which existed while he was governor," Widmer says.
For his part, Giuliani did win big tax cuts in New York City, but some of the 23 cuts he takes credit for were initiated by the state government. And Giuliani left the city facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"Certainly Mayor Giuliani cared deeply about tax cuts and pushed them at a time when few other politicians locally were doing so. Whether he deserves credit or blame for that is a different question," says Ronnie Lowenstein, director of New York City's Independent Budget Office.
By the standards of Massachusetts and New York, both men are fiscal conservatives. But now they're playing to a tougher crowd: the famously tight-fisted, tax-hating Republicans of New Hampshire.
Romney is counting on an early win there to boost his momentum, while Giuliani sees New Hampshire as a chance to stop Romney in his tracks. The prize could go to whichever candidate seems tougher on taxes.
"New Hampshire is one of the places nowadays where fiscal conservatism actually plays a leading role as opposed to social conservatism," says Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Recent polls show Romney's lead in New Hampshire shrinking. Pollster Dick Bennett says many Republicans there tell him to record their preference in pencil, because it could easily change in the three months until the primary.