Romney touts business skills

In Tampa, the presidential candidate trumpets his record as a venture capitalist.

By DAVID DeCAMP, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008

TAMPA -- Mitt Romney finally had more than his nicer-than-nice smile to show off. With a surging Florida campaign and a handy hot issue, he hit Tampa on Wednesday to woo voters.

Romney linked the Republican presidential campaign's top issues -- immigration, education and security -- to the economy.

"You can't have a strong military without having a strong economy," Romney told employees of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute at the University of South Florida.

Voters' focus on the economic downturn has fashioned well with Romney, a former business executive and Massachusetts governor. He is using his experience running Bain Capital, a venture capital firm, to show he succeeded in what he calls "the real economy" -- a place where his rivals have not worked as much.

Romney narrowly trails leader John McCain in what amounts to a statistical dead heat, according to a new poll for the St. Petersburg Times. They once lagged former front-runner Rudy Giuliani, who also has promised economic relief with deep tax cuts and a national catastrophe fund to lower Floridians' insurance bills.

"I was tested dealing with an economy that was in very bad shape when I became mayor of New York City," Giuliani said Wednesday in Estero.

But barbs by Romney made clear that his campaign regards Florida as a two-man race with McCain. And the two are addressing the economy differently.

Romney sought common ground with voters worried over finances, but never got close to criticizing big business for the sluggish economy.

"I don't know if any of you have any investments, but if you do, you're probably checking with your computers to see what happens," Romney told the Moffitt crowd before a small rally outside the nearby Alfano Conference Center.

McCain got close -- and then some.

Before fundraising in South Florida, McCain hosted an economic roundtable at an Orlando bathtub manufacturer. He and other business leaders discussed the tanking economy, the housing slump and how the lack of immigration affects business owners.

McCain suggested cracking down on predatory lenders and mortgage brokers that "deceived people" as well as rating agencies "that gave high ratings based on nothing I know of."

"We are paying a price for violating one of the fundamental principles of economics: Don't lend money to people who can't pay it back," McCain said.

Romney renewed criticism of McCain for voting against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts by President Bush, after McCain began advertising a promise to make them permanent. Romney also acknowledged to reporters his less than full-barrel support for the cuts when they were first unveiled.

"When they first came out, I didn't make any comment on them," he said. "I said the economy needed a stimulus and hoped they would be a stimulus. But I didn't make it a practice as governor to talk about federal legislation."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6232.