GOP Hopefuls Push Tax Cuts at Florida Debate
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Florida's presidential primary next week includes many voters relocated from New York. And the New York Times chose this moment to make endorsements. New York Senator Hillary Clinton won approval on the Democratic side, but former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani got a body slam. His hometown paper calls Giuliani, quote, "a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man." The Times backs Republican John McCain instead. That news arrives the morning after Republicans debated in Florida.
As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, this week's news guaranteed there would be just one leading topic.
SCOTT HORSLEY: There was little talk about immigration or health care last night. Even the war in Iraq got only about 10 minutes. From the very first question, candidates were pressed on how they'd reenergize the sputtering U.S. economy. Most applauded the economic stimulus package worked out by Congress and the White House, but said they'd go further with permanent, not temporary, tax cuts, and more incentives for business.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney seized the opportunity to tout his credentials as a successful business consultant and private equity investor.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): As we face tough times, we need to have somebody who understands - if you will - has the private sector, has the business world, has the economy in their DNA. I do.
I spent my life in the private sector. I know how jobs come and I know how they go, and I'll make sure that we create more good jobs for this nation. And one way to do that is by holding down taxes and making those tax cuts permanent.
HORSLEY: Romney's campaign has been busy pointing out press clippings, in which his chief rival, Arizona Senator John McCain, confesses a limited background in economics. But McCain showed no such modesty during last night's debate.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): And I have been a consistent fighter to restrain spending and to cut taxes. And my credentials and my experience and my knowledge of these economic issues I think are extensive and I would match them against anybody who's running.
HORSLEY: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee expressed some reservations about the stimulus plan, which will send $600 tax rebate checks to most working Americans. He says the government might be better off building new highways to help traffic-weary Floridians and keep the money at home.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): One of the concerns that I have is that we'll probably end up borrowing this $150 billion from the Chinese. And when we get those rebate checks, most people are going to go out and buy stuff that's been imported from China. I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated the most by the package.
HORSLEY: Huckabee also reminded his rivals that a few months ago he was the only Republican sounding the alarm about the economic challenges facing working class voters.
Mr. HUCKABEE: And if you pay attention to the people who are the single moms and the working people who barely get from paycheck to paycheck, you'd find out months in advance that this economy was headed for a downward turn.
HORSLEY: Candidates also fielded questions on issues of special concern to Floridians, including a catastrophic insurance pool to help homeowners in hurricane prone areas. Romney said he'd back some kind of cooperative effort among high-risk states. McCain, however, was wary of too large a federal role.
Sen. McCAIN: I'm confident we can do it together working with the insurance companies, not setting up another huge federal bureaucracy of $200 billion, which still nobody has said how you're going to pay for.
HORSLEY: Most recent polls show McCain holding a slight lead among Republicans in Florida, with Romney close behind. McCain has been forced to spend time away from Florida, raising money though, while Romney can partially fund his campaign from his own pocket. The multimillionaire refused to say last night how much of his own money he has put in.
Mr. ROMNEY: One thing's real clear. Given the contribution I made in this race, I know I owe no one anything. I don't have some group there that I have a special obligation to that raised money for me.
HORSLEY: One-time front-runner Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, has slipped in the polls to third or even fourth place. The former New York mayor insists his unconventional strategy of largely sitting out the earlier contests will pay off in Florida.
Mr. GIULIANI: I believe that I'm going to have the same fate that the New York Giants had last week...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GIULIANI: ...and we're going to come from behind and surprise everyone. We have them all lulled into a very false sense of security now.
HORSLEY: Like the Giants though, Giuliani now faces a business-like competitor from New England in Mitt Romney, as well as Senator McCain, whose home state will host the Super Bowl. McCain has just collected the GOP primary endorsement of The New York Times, Giuliani's hometown newspaper, still read by many transplants in Florida. The winner here will get the biggest cache of delegates yet, more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined. Even more important, Florida's winner gets a leg up for the two dozen states holding contests a week later.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Boca Raton, Florida.