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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Next Tuesday's Republican primary in Florida represents the single biggest delegate price so far in the presidential race. It's shaping up to be a three-man contest between Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has all but pulled out of the state. He's saving his scarce financial resources for Super Tuesday one week later. Coming up, we'll hear what's on the minds of voters in northern Florida.
First, NPR's Don Gonyea was with Senator John McCain in Orlando where the economy was a big issue.
DON GONYEA: Senator John McCain walked along the dusty cement floors of a company called Baker Manufacturing, located in an industrial section of Orlando, a town known more for its tourism.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): How are you?
GONYEA: Over the noise, the senator greeted workers and watched as a team of three put a hot sheet of flat, white acrylic over a mold. In just seconds, the suction from a vacuum underneath turned it into a perfectly-formed bathtub. This company has 20 employees making between $9 and $10 an hour. There's a small sale staff as well. The owner says a slumping market for new homes in Florida has meant a 65 percent drop in sales from the same time last year. It's that kind of news that makes the economy a top issue here. Here's Senator McCain.
Sen. McCAIN: Let's have some straight talk. Our economy is experiencing significant challenges. And let me just begin by saying I believe the fundamentals of our economy are still strong and nothing is inevitable. And I am convinced that we can make a comeback.
GONYEA: 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 the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration permanent.
Sen. McCAIN: If we don't do that, then every business, including this one, will have to plan for (unintelligible) in effect the tax increase beginning in 2010.
GONYEA: He called for reining in wasteful government spending and said it's critical that the nation have an energy policy that reduces dependence on foreign oil. He said part of the answer is nuclear power. But he also made a pitch for green fuel technology. He said businesses can be given incentives to use alternative clean power. And McCain said that would help address greenhouse gas emissions which, he stated flatly, are hurting the planet. Members of the panel had more on their minds than just tax cuts and economic policy.
Mark McHugh's is the CEO of a long-time Florida attraction called Gatorland.
Mr. MARK McHUGH (CEO, Gatorland): If I may, I'll tell you, I've been watching you wrestle alligators and crocodiles inside the Beltway for years. I think you can do very well down here in Florida, senator. Because you're well equipped.
GONYEA: McHugh wants the U.S. to do more to promote tourism to people around the world. McCain answered that he thinks that's better handled by the private sector. But another questioner suggested that the poor image of the U.S. abroad significantly hurts tourism in places like Florida. McCain acknowledged the problem.
Sen. McCAIN: There's a perception out there, as you know. Don't bother to come to the United States, you may get hung up at the airport. You may get strip searched. You may, you know, 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.
GONYEA: McCain added, quote, "we have lots of friends abroad, but we have lots of work to do." The senator 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 February 5th. 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'll face in November.
Sen. MCCAIN: I look forward to the debate between me and our — whoever the Democratic candidate is. We have stark differences and I want them to keep talking about me as what a great American I am. Thank you very much.
GONYEA: With a wry smile, McCain waved and headed outside to his bus and to his next Florida stop.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Orlando.
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