Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Arizona Sen. John McCain poses for a photo with workers at Baker Manufacturing Co., while campaigning in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
The upcoming Florida Republican primary is the single biggest delegate prize so far in the presidential race.
The contest is shaping up as a three-man race among former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has all but pulled out of the state, saving his scarce financial resources for Super Tuesday, one week later, when 24 states hold primaries.
McCain spent the day talking about the economy at a company called Baker Manufacturing, located in an industrial section of Orlando, a town known more for its tourism.
The senator greeted workers and then watched as a team put a hot sheet of flat white acrylic over a mold. In just seconds, the suction from a vacuum turned it into a perfectly formed bathtub.
This manufacturing company has 20 employees, who earn $9 to $10 an hour. The company also has a small sales staff. The owner says a slumping market for new homes in Florida has meant a 65 percent drop in sales over the past year.
This is the kind of news that makes the economy a top issue here, particularly on the campaign trail.
"Let's have some straight talk," McCain said at the plant. "Our economy is experiencing serious challenges, but let me say our fundamentals are still strong, and I believe we can make a comeback."
On the shop floor, McCain sat at the head of a table for a discussion with a dozen business owners, bankers, health care providers and educators. He called for keeping taxes low and for making permanent the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration.
He called for reining in wasteful government spending, saying it is critical that the nation have an energy policy that reduces dependence on foreign oil and that part of the answer is nuclear power. But he also made a pitch for green fuel technology, saying businesses should be given incentives to use alternative clean power. McCain said that would help address greenhouse gas emissions, which he flatly stated are hurting the planet.
Members of the panel had more on their minds than just tax cuts and the economy. Mark McHugh is the CEO of a long-time Florida attraction called "Gatorland."
"If I may tell you, I've been watching you wrestle gators and crocodiles up there in Washington for years. So I think you'll do very well down here in Florida. You're well equipped," McHugh said.
McHugh wants the U.S. to do more to promote tourism to people around the world. McCain answered that he thinks that is better handled by the private sector. Another questioner suggested that the poor image of the U.S. abroad significantly hurts tourism in places like Florida.
"There's a perception out there," McCain said. "Don't bother to come to the United States. You may get hung up at the airport. You may get strip searched. You may ... all of those things, and unfortunately, in these kinds of things, perception is reality. Now, our image in the world in some ways has suffered because of the war in Iraq."
'We have lots of friends abroad, but we have a lot of work to do," he added.
McCain has been in Florida all week. After wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, his campaign feels that a victory here will make him the clear favorite going into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. He also couldn't resist noting that Democratic presidential candidates, in a debate this week, looked ahead to the possibility that McCain will be the Republican they will face in November.
"I look forward to the debate between me and whoever the Democrat candidate is. We have stark differences, and I want them to keep talking about me, as what a great American I am," he said to applause.
Then, with a wry smile, McCain waved and headed outside to his bus onto his next Florida stop.