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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."

Campaigning in Sarasota on Wednesday, Romney continued the back and forth by mocking McCain's recent admission that he is not an economic expert. "I won't need a briefing on how the economy works," Romney said.

Giuliani faces his rivals in this make-or-break state not as the powerful national front-runner he once was, as his standing evaporated while he largely took a pass on most of the early presidential contests.

A new Field poll in California, which votes Feb. 5, shows a dynamic similar to Florida's, with Giuliani at 11 percent, down from 25 percent a month ago. McCain led the poll with 22 percent, and Romney was second with 18 percent.

To try to recover in Florida, Giuliani has seized on an issue critical to voters: the creation of a national catastrophic insurance fund. In a new online ad, he argues that such a fund would "fix the insurance mess." The fund is being pushed by the insurance industry as a way of backstopping its losses during major natural disasters.

Giuliani also persuaded members of Congress to introduce tax-cut legislation that he said is based on his campaign proposals. Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), a longtime Giuliani supporter, introduced the legislation Wednesday. In an interview, Dreier said the Republican debate over taxes will loom "huge" in the Florida primary because of "economic uncertainty . . . and the huge volatility in the market."

Asked Wednesday why his poll numbers are going down, Giuliani expressed optimism: "People realize that I'm the one who is supporting the national catastrophic fund. I've offered the largest tax cut and the biggest stimulus to the economy, and I've had the most experience. I believe we're going to win here."

But he has several significant challenges. One is his support for abortion rights in a state where Republicans have consistently nominated candidates opposed to them. But strategists here have said that, in a multi-candidate field, Giuliani's views may not hurt him as much.

A second factor is geography. Giuliani's strongest support is in South Florida, home to many retirees from the Northeast. But the Miami area will provide fewer than one-fifth of the votes on Tuesday. He is in greater competition in the corridor between Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg, which will produce slightly more than half of the vote next week.

"He's not where the fish are," said one Florida strategist, who offered candid analysis on the condition of anonymity.

Giuliani is also at a financial disadvantage, particularly against Romney, who can tap his personal fortune and has made a major television buy in the Miami area, according to one strategist. Giuliani may regret having spent more than $2 million on television ads in New Hampshire -- where he finished fourth with 9 percent of the vote -- rather than saving the money for a final-week barrage in Florida.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Orlando and polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.

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