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It's all Florida, all the time now for Republicans

The four front-runners are in the state, angling for its delegate trove. Leader Romney has McCain in his sights.

January 22, 2008|Michael Finnegan and Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — The nation's ailing economy dominated Florida's Republican presidential race Monday as the four leading candidates in next week's make-or-break contest fanned out from Miami's Little Havana to the Panhandle.

John McCain and Mike Huckabee arrived in Florida to join rivals Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani in the tightly contested fight for the biggest delegate prize so far in the campaign for the party nomination.

"It's really an up-for-grabs place, as it always is," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You've got to spend money here to win, though."

On that score, Romney holds an edge in a state of 18 million people spread across more than 65,000 square miles of swamps and flatlands: His personal fortune enables him to outspend opponents on ads in Florida's costly and far-flung media markets.

Romney went after McCain, the national front-runner, as the former Massachusetts governor set off on a bus trip from Jacksonville through Daytona Beach and Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

Citing home-price declines and other signs of a "weakening economy," Romney faulted McCain for voting against President Bush's tax cuts, ignoring the Arizona senator's more recent calls for making them permanent.

"I'm talking about lowering taxes, both for businesses as well as for individuals so we can get more money into the economy -- boost it," Romney told MSNBC. "Sen. McCain finds that to be the wrong course, and I think he's wrong again."

Like Romney, though, McCain has called for new tax cuts to revive the economy.

For his part, McCain opened his campaign for Florida's Jan. 29 contest with a media mob surrounding him and his wife, Cindy, as they stepped up to a cafe counter for Cuban espresso in Little Havana.

"Our race begins here in Miami with the Cuban American community," he said.

Cuban Americans, who make up roughly 10% of Florida's Republican primary vote, are a coveted constituency for the GOP candidates. McCain, like his opponents, took a hard line on the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

"I'm proud to have fought for and defended the freedom of the people of Cuba, consistently calling for continuing the embargo until there's free elections, human rights organizations, and a free and independent country," McCain said before leaving for Jacksonville.

Also making pitches to Cuban Americans were Giuliani and Romney: Both began airing television ads in Spanish.

The former New York mayor, who has staked his entire campaign on winning Florida after faltering in earlier contests, faced grim news from his home state Monday. Two polls found that McCain had surpassed Giuliani among Republicans expecting to vote in New York's Feb. 5 primary.

The independent surveys -- one by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, the other by Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. -- sampled small numbers of voters. But they raised new doubts about Giuliani's strategy of abandoning his efforts in the earlier-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Most alarming for Giuliani, the poll findings -- if confirmed by other surveys -- seem to undercut his argument that his popularity in Democratic-leaning states like New York show his strength as a general-election candidate.

"He's been barely a blip on the screen in these early primary and caucus states," said Marist pollster Lee M. Miringoff. "He's had to find a way to stay active as a candidate while New Yorkers are watching winners everywhere else."

For weeks, Giuliani has been campaigning mainly in Florida while his opponents competed elsewhere. With Huckabee kicking off his Florida campaign in Orlando, all four of the leading GOP candidates are competing full-force in the same state.

"It's the first time that all four of the major candidates have all focused on the same state at the same time with the same kind of earnestness," said senior Romney advisor Ron Kaufman.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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