Campaigns shift to economy

The new focus changes the playing field for candidates.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 23, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to a November national referendum over war policy.

The 2008 election turned into a debate about the economy.

In appearances across Florida on Tuesday, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain all touted their economic principles to would-be voters. The surprise decision Tuesday by the Federal Reserve to cut a key interest rate only sharpened the rhetoric.

The shift "is natural," said Kevin A. Hassett, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute and a McCain economic policy adviser. "When the economy is close to recession, if not in recession, voters think long and hard about what the different candidates have to say.

"It's a time when candidates have to step up."

Florida's biggest issue

Since Iowa's caucus, Democrats and Republicans voting in each of the early primary and caucus states have said the economy, not Iraq, was the most pressing issue facing America, according to exit and entrance polls.

Florida is setting up the same way.

A Jan. 20 SurveyUSA poll of 518 likely Florida voters said 40 percent considered the economy the nation's top issue. Terrorism came in second, with 21 percent.

For some candidates, like Romney and Giuliani, it's a political opportunity since both have experience as public executives and can recount their days of balancing budgets and cutting taxes. For McCain, a veteran legislator, even supporters admit it may be a hurdle.

In particular, Romney is hoping voters think his experiences in the private sector give him the upper hand. Romney earned law and business degrees at Harvard University before earning tens of millions of dollars as a business consultant and venture capitalist.

His economic stimulus plan includes allowing businesses to write off 100 percent of new equipment purchases for the next two years, cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent and reducing the lowest tax rate from 10 to 7.5 percent.

At a campaign event in Coral Springs, Romney unveiled a new backdrop for his speeches that read "Economic Turnaround." He also launched a new television advertisement touting his business acumen.

"People recognize now more than ever that it makes a difference having a president who has actually had a job in the private sector," said Romney, who campaigns in Tampa this afternoon.

Giuliani, meanwhile, continued to morph his candidacy from counterterrorism to antitax. Speaking at a morning restaurant stop in Palm Beach Gardens, Giuliani said he is proposing the largest tax cut of any of the presidential candidates, and the largest in American history.

Giuliani wants to reduce the corporate tax to 25 percent and the capital gains tax to 10 percent, reintroduce a tax credit for research and development, and create a simpler tax system with only three tax brackets: 10, 15 and 30 percent.

"My record in tax-cutting is so much better than everyone else," he said.

Republican Mike Huckabee, another former governor, though one with a mixed record on tax cuts, continues to talk about his proposal to eliminate the IRS and replace income tax with a national sales tax.

But Huckabee, who suffered a stinging defeat in South Carolina, said Tuesday that he may pull out of Florida ahead of the Jan. 29 primary to invest more heavily in states he might be able to win on Feb. 5.

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican, issued a statement reiterating his position of eliminating the Federal Reserve.

"If the Fed fails to cease its meddling, the coming recession will be far worse than it otherwise might," he said.

Democrats respond

While Republicans touted their stimulus packages, Democrats used Tuesday's news from the Federal Reserve as an opportunity to criticize the Bush administration for not staving off a recession.

In Washington, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tied the rising prices of health care, energy and education costs to "the failures of this administration."

And Sen. Barack Obama blasted Bush's $150-billion proposed recovery package.

"George Bush's economic plans haven't worked before and they're not going to start working now," Obama said in Greenville, S.C.

McCain on economy

Campaigning Tuesday in the Panhandle, McCain trumpeted his economic stimulus package despite criticisms from the Romney and Giuliani campaigns that he has a weak record on tax and fiscal policy.

Both camps targeted the Arizona senator's decision not to support President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

Romney officials also circulated a statement from McCain last month in New Hampshire, when he joked that "the issue of economics is not something that I've understood as well as I should."

McCain wants to make existing tax cuts permanent, get rid of the alternative minimum tax and, like Giuliani, cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent.

At a Fort Walton Beach event, McCain talked about creating a commission to deliberate on tax policy and getting Alan Greenspan involved, "whether he's alive or dead, it doesn't matter, and we'll prop him up and put dark glasses on him like Weekend at Bernie's," joked McCain, who is planning an economics roundtable today in Orlando.

Voters who listened to McCain in Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach said they have no doubts about McCain's ability to tackle military and security issues.

"The economy is probably his weakest point," said Peggy Fritz, 78, who listened to McCain in Pensacola, "but I really think he'll step up to the plate."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.