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CAMPAIGN '08: THE FLORIDA PRIMARY

Economy vs. national security

Romney and McCain play to their strengths and battle over what Republicans should see as the party's priority.

January 28, 2008|Seema Mehta, Louise Roug and Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writers

SWEETWATER, FLA. — The quarreling between Mitt Romney and John McCain in the closing days of the Florida primary highlights their clash over whether Republicans should make the economy or national security their top priority in choosing a presidential nominee.

The two are battling for the lead in Tuesday's pivotal contest in Florida, the most populous state yet to cast ballots in the Republican race.

In a final set of TV ads, Romney tried to drive home his case that his corporate resume made him best suited to lead an economic recovery, while McCain cast himself as a national security expert fit to be commander in chief.

At dueling campaign stops on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts on Sunday, each resumed slamming the other's record, a measure of how the pair has come to view Florida's primary, if not the nomination race, as a two-man fight.

For his part, Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose presidential bid will probably be doomed if he loses in Florida, tried to remain above the fray. Traveling by bus from Boca Raton to Cocoa Beach, he argued that he could lead on both the economy and national security.

The other major candidate, Mike Huckabee, dashed across the state's northern tier, from Jacksonville to Pensacola. But he signaled his low expectations for Florida by setting off today to campaign in Tennessee, where Republicans will vote Feb. 5.

All the GOP contenders face enormous challenges posed by Florida's diverse patchwork of voting blocs: Cuban Americans in South Florida, evangelicals near the Georgia and Alabama borders, moderates in the suburbs of Orlando, and retirees from the Midwest and Northeast around the state.

Romney took his turn courting Cuban Americans here in the Miami suburbs on Sunday. Trading his usual starched-collar shirt for a white Cuban guayabera, he told a rally of Cuban Americans at a recreation center about his history as a Boston investment executive.

"Business and jobs, it's in my veins," the former governor of Massachusetts said. "I understand how the economy works. I understand why jobs come and why they go. No one needs to give me a briefing on the economy."

Romney was more direct on CNN. Parrying a McCain attack on his Iraq war position, he said McCain was "desperately trying to change the topic from the economy."

"He doesn't want to talk about the economy, because frankly he has pointed out time and again that he doesn't understand how the economy works," Romney said.

He also portrayed the Arizona senator as a Washington politician with a paltry record.

"Sen. McCain has been in the Senate for the last 20 years, and frankly, being a committee chairman is not leading a great organization or making great things happen," said Romney, noting his own leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Playing to Florida's vast ranks of retirees, Romney also plugged his plan to abolish payroll taxes for people 65 and older. And he chided McCain for cosponsoring legislation aimed at fighting global warming, saying it would cost jobs and raise gasoline and electricity prices.

"Don't you understand, they don't call it American warming, they call it global warming," he shouted at the Sweetwater rally. "We don't need to have America have additional costs that the rest of the world doesn't bear."

McCain, who campaigned Sunday with the global warming bill's Democratic cosponsor, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), questioned Romney's judgment on the Iraq war.

Reading his Boston rival's quotes off an index card, McCain castigated Romney for saying last year that he backed a secret timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. McCain called the matter a decisive issue, saying it "would have sent the message to Al Qaeda that we were leaving."

"I'm running for president of the United States because I believe the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremism," McCain told reporters at an airplane museum between Tampa and Orlando.

McCain, who compared Romney to Democrats who have pushed to end the war, said: "If we had, quote, set timetables, the outcome of the conflict would have been different and it would have entailed a much greater expenditure of American blood and treasure."

Responding to Romney's attacks on his economic record, McCain described himself to NBC as "smart on economics" and noted his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee. At the museum, he also described Romney's record on jobs and taxes as lackluster.

"His record as governor of the state of Massachusetts is not one that I would want to imitate," he said.

All but ignored by McCain and Romney was Giuliani. At a pizzeria in Port St. Lucie, the former New York mayor called his opponents "good, honest men" and urged them to tone down their rhetoric.

"The voters of Florida are probably getting tired of all the negativity," he said.

Earlier, in Boca Raton, Giuliani addressed about 500 people at a synagogue. Wearing a yarmulke and standing between the Israeli and American flags, he spoke of his first trip to Jerusalem and the "very, very special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel, saying it "became even more special after 9/11."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

louise.roug@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan in Miami contributed to this report.

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