Romney, McCain Take Lead in Fla.; Tax Talk Pervades

By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 24, 2008

NAPLES, Fla., Jan. 23 -- After months of debate over illegal immigration, social issues and the Iraq war, the economy and taxes have emerged as the central focus of the Republican race in Florida.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has staked his entire candidacy on winning here, has shifted his focus from terrorism to taxes in a late effort to halt his slide in the polls. He told several hundred people on the Gulf Coast on Wednesday that his plan to reduce corporate and individual taxes would reinvigorate private investment and spending.

"Right now, we're focused on the question of the economy and turning around an economy," Giuliani told reporters later. "I'm the only candidate who has ever turned around a government economy."

With former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) quitting Tuesday and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee largely shifting his focus elsewhere, Giuliani is now pitted against the men who have been his main rivals from the beginning: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

A new poll for the St. Petersburg Times shows McCain and Romney leading the contest in Florida, with Giuliani and Huckabee fading. The poll put McCain at 25 percent and Romney at 23 percent, with Giuliani and Huckabee tied at 15 percent each, and 13 percent undecided. The Times's November poll had Giuliani in front of Romney by nearly 2 to 1.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) said he thinks the new poll reflects fallout from Giuliani's failure to win in any of the earlier states. "It's important to win," Crist said in an interview at the governor's mansion. "If you're going to win somewhere, you've got to win."

Crist has not endorsed a candidate but said he has not ruled out doing so before Tuesday's primary. With an approval rating over 70 percent, Crist could offer an important boost in the final days of a campaign.

The governor said the Florida winner is likely to head into the big round of contests on Feb. 5 with real momentum. "We're the first megastate to weigh in on this primary season, and I think you could make a very good argument that Florida is a very good bellwether of the country," he said.

Aside from concerns over the nation's economy, a referendum on Florida's ballot that would lower property taxes is also contributing to candidates' anti-tax rhetoric.

Both McCain and Romney campaigned across a sunny Florida on Wednesday, offering voters similar promises of tax cuts and economic recovery as their campaigns lashed out at each other over charges of flip-flopping on key issues.

"Lower taxes, less regulation, restrained spending, a cut in the corporate tax rate . . . are the keys to the economic recovery of this country," McCain said during an economic roundtable in Orlando. In a new television ad, McCain vows to "protect your pocketbook" and make President Bush's tax cuts permanent.

A Romney news release ridiculed the McCain ad as a flip-flop, noting that the senator opposed Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, responded dryly that "Mitt Romney has earned the Olympic gold medal for flip-flopping in this race."

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