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GOP Hopefuls Push Tax Cuts at Florida Debate


As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, this week's news guaranteed there would be just one leading topic.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney seized the opportunity to tout his credentials as a successful business consultant and private equity investor.


M: I spent my life in the private sector. I know how jobs come and I know how they go, and I'll make sure that we create more good jobs for this nation. And one way to do that is by holding down taxes and making those tax cuts permanent.

HORSLEY: Romney's campaign has been busy pointing out press clippings, in which his chief rival, Arizona Senator John McCain, confesses a limited background in economics. But McCain showed no such modesty during last night's debate.

INSKEEP: And I have been a consistent fighter to restrain spending and to cut taxes. And my credentials and my experience and my knowledge of these economic issues I think are extensive and I would match them against anybody who's running.

HORSLEY: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee expressed some reservations about the stimulus plan, which will send $600 tax rebate checks to most working Americans. He says the government might be better off building new highways to help traffic-weary Floridians and keep the money at home.

M: One of the concerns that I have is that we'll probably end up borrowing this $150 billion from the Chinese. And when we get those rebate checks, most people are going to go out and buy stuff that's been imported from China. I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated the most by the package.


HORSLEY: Huckabee also reminded his rivals that a few months ago he was the only Republican sounding the alarm about the economic challenges facing working class voters.

M: And if you pay attention to the people who are the single moms and the working people who barely get from paycheck to paycheck, you'd find out months in advance that this economy was headed for a downward turn.

HORSLEY: Candidates also fielded questions on issues of special concern to Floridians, including a catastrophic insurance pool to help homeowners in hurricane prone areas. Romney said he'd back some kind of cooperative effort among high-risk states. McCain, however, was wary of too large a federal role.

INSKEEP: I'm confident we can do it together working with the insurance companies, not setting up another huge federal bureaucracy of $200 billion, which still nobody has said how you're going to pay for.

HORSLEY: Most recent polls show McCain holding a slight lead among Republicans in Florida, with Romney close behind. McCain has been forced to spend time away from Florida, raising money though, while Romney can partially fund his campaign from his own pocket. The multimillionaire refused to say last night how much of his own money he has put in.

M: One thing's real clear. Given the contribution I made in this race, I know I owe no one anything. I don't have some group there that I have a special obligation to that raised money for me.

HORSLEY: One-time front-runner Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, has slipped in the polls to third or even fourth place. The former New York mayor insists his unconventional strategy of largely sitting out the earlier contests will pay off in Florida.

M: I believe that I'm going to have the same fate that the New York Giants had last week...


M: ...and we're going to come from behind and surprise everyone. We have them all lulled into a very false sense of security now.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Boca Raton, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.