Romney vies for voters in Fla.


Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:35 p.m.

SARASOTA, Fla. - With recession fears growing, Mitt Romney's latest television ad is part resume, part resolve. And all reassurance.

"I know how America works because I spent my life in the real economy," says the man who made millions as a venture capitalist. "My plan will make America strong."

No mention of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani or Mike Huckabee, Republican presidential rivals whose campaign credentials lean heavily on government service. The point is unmistakable, all the same.

The ad is the most visible element of Romney's strategy for the final week of the Florida primary. After a series of early campaign setbacks and one notable triumph, the former Massachusetts governor and aides have concluded that even in a state with relatively low unemployment, economic anxiety is his best hope for a victory that could finally set him on a path to the nomination.

"I won't need a briefing on how the economy works. I've been there. I know how the economy works," he told an audience on Wednesday to applause.

Not surprisingly, his Republican rivals are loath to let his claim go unchallenged.

"Of all the people running for president of the United States, I've had the most experience in turning around a government and turning around an economy," Giuliani said earlier this week. "I actually accomplished that in New York City," the former mayor added.

McCain's aides recently circulated a one-page compilation of reports, many from the media, that said Massachusetts state spending rose sharply and economic growth lagged during Romney's four years as governor. One recalled his refusal to take a position on President Bush's tax cuts in 2003.

In fact, Romney the politician can seem awkward trying to acknowledge the economic anxiety that is manifest in opinion polls.

"I do believe that among our citizens there's a growing concern about our economy as they see the dollar slide, the stock market slide," he said recently before listing more common concerns such as mortgage foreclosures and job losses.

And on Tuesday, as the markets braced for a sell-off that would send stock prices plummeting, he mixed in some professional investment advice. "If I were at home I'd be calling my broker and looking for opportunities to buy," he said.

Whatever his earlier position on tax cuts, Romney now preaches their virtue.

On Saturday, he issued an economic stimulus plan totaling $233 billion, half again as big as anything President Bush and congressional leaders had been discussing.

Its centerpiece is tax breaks for businesses investing in new equipment, an essential element, he says, for the creation of jobs.

It also included an individual income tax rebate of $400 to get money into the economy quickly, as well as a permanent reduction in the current 10 percent income tax bracket to 7.5 percent, designed for longer-term economic growth.

Under his plan, millions of lower-paid workers who pay payroll taxes but no income tax would not receive rebates. "I don't give it to people who don't pay taxes," he told one audience, which applauded in return. Aides also cited studies they said cast doubt on whether lower-income workers had used earlier rebates to stimulate the economy by purchasing consumer goods.

Romney's decision to emphasize his business background comes at a pivotal point in the battle for the nomination. Many conservatives have never warmed to him, wary of his previous support for abortion rights and gay rights. Huckabee's rise in Iowa and McCain's New Hampshire comeback made Romney odd-man out in the first two events of the year.

He rebounded smartly with a victory in the Michigan primary, where he campaigned on a promise to try and bring back the thousands of auto industry jobs that have been lost in recent years.

A Michigan native, he also stressed his personal ties to a struggling state with the highest unemployment in the country.

Without the same economic-based appeal, but without the personal connection, he stumbled the following week in high-unemployment South Carolina, where McCain won and Huckabee came in second.

Now Florida looms as the final single-state test before the campaign goes national with more than 20 primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5. With former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson out of the race, Huckabee out of money and Giuliani in desperate need of a victory, the winnowing process is under way.

Ironically, Florida presents Romney with a personal business decision to make.

He has poured $35 million or more of his own funds into the race. While he has outspent his rivals on television in Florida, he is not advertising in Miami, the state's most expensive media market. According to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, aides have urged him to so, and in recent days asked him to commit another $400,000 or so from his personal funds to finance the effort.

None of the behind the scenes maneuvering plays out in public, though.

Instead, Romney's aides produced a new campaign backdrop within hours after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates and the stock market plunged on fears of recession.

"Economic Turnaround," it read.

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