Shift in the campaign landscape

The Baltimore Sun

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Two weeks ago, when John McCain won the New Hampshire primary, national security was the top concern for voters, according to election-day polling.

Tonight, when the four Republican survivors meet in a televised debate in Florida, the economy is likely to dominate the discussion.

Slumping financial markets and recession worries have abruptly altered the direction of the campaign, as candidates in both parties scramble to adapt.

Democrats - whose primary calendar has them in South Carolina, with one of the worst jobless rates in the country - are pushing tax rebates and other aid designed to stimulate consumer spending. Among their ideas: one-time checks for workers who don't earn enough to pay income taxes and for low- and middle- income retirees on Social Security.

The shift is particularly pronounced among Republican contenders in Florida, the nation's fourth-most-populous state, whose once-booming housing market has been hit hard by the lending crisis and where Tuesday's primary looms as a pivotal test.

McCain, the GOP's nominal front-runner and a slight favorite to win here next week, devoted his only public campaign event yesterday to economic concerns. He has yet to endorse the stimulus package being discussed by Congress and President Bush, but the Arizona senator also said yesterday that he hasn't ruled out voting for one that included aid to those at the lower end of the income scale.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, who got the jump on the Republican field by announcing a hefty tax cut proposal two weeks ago, is fine-tuning his plan for Florida, a state he has said he needs to win. The former New York mayor is pushing a national catastrophic insurance program that would lower homeowners' insurance rates in this state through a subsidy from taxpayers throughout the country.

Mitt Romney is playing up his business background and experience as a corporate turnaround artist in "the real economy." The former Massachusetts governor is proposing a $250 billion stimulus package, considerably larger than the one Bush and Congress have been discussing, along with business tax breaks and the elimination of personal income taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains for those earning up to $200,000 a year.

Romney, whose personal wealth has allowed him to outspend his rivals here, as elsewhere, directly addresses economic anxieties in a new TV ad that features Florida's shoreline in the background and promotes his tax-cut plan as "conservative change."

Mike Huckabee has the most radical economic idea - replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax - but a severe lack of campaign funds is keeping the former Arkansas governor from advertising that message in this state.

Yesterday, McCain's hourlong discussion with local business leaders at a bathtub manufacturing plant not far from Disney World might have been less noteworthy for what was said than for the way it underscored the abrupt shift in the 2008 landscape.

It was less than a week earlier that McCain unveiled his economic package. A traditional Republican prescription of tax breaks for business and an extension of the Bush tax cuts he voted against in 2001, it relies on long-term solutions, rather than a short-term economic fix. McCain's top economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, said the stimulus package might take effect too late to do much good, while worsening the federal deficit.

"Let's have some straight talk. Our economy is experiencing significant challenges," said McCain, who frequently referred to written notes. "We need pro-growth, pro-business, low taxes, less spending."

The senator's expertise is in national security, and his shakier comfort level with economics was on display at a campaign stop the other day when 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, a prominent supporter, jumped in to answer for McCain after a reporter asked whether he favored a middle-class tax cut. (Answer: McCain would eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which has gradually snared taxpayers in the upper reaches of the middle class.)

Also yesterday, for the first time in his campaign, McCain unveiled a new TV commercial that couples an economic message with his overall national security theme. In it, McCain tells Floridians that he'll "protect our shores and protect your pocketbooks."

Supporters of rival candidates have suggested that a shift away from national security would make McCain vulnerable in the primary here, and the senator's aides say he will be emphasizing his commander in chief credentials in tonight's debate.

But exit-poll data from the earlier contests suggest that McCain might not suffer that much if voter fears of a recession are the dominant concern Tuesday. In New Hampshire, for example, among the 1-in-4 voters who said they were very worried about the economy, McCain defeated Romney by 10 percentage points.

Here in Florida, as elsewhere, voters appear to be making complex judgments in evaluating the candidates.

Retired educators Omar Ditt- mer, 75, and his wife, Gladys, 73, have seen housing prices plunge by 20 percent over the past year in their central Florida condominium development and say they are concerned about the cost of gasoline and other everyday needs.

But Omar Dittmer, whose career included stops at Christian schools in Maryland and Tennessee, said "character" and "experience" will determine who gets his vote as he makes up his mind between McCain and Giuliani.

A new poll released yesterday by the St. Petersburg Times, The Miami Herald and a Tampa TV station indicated that the shift in focus to the economy might be helping Romney. It showed McCain and Romney about even for first.

The survey of likely primary voters, completed Tuesday, showed McCain with 25 percent and Romney with 23 percent, within the poll's margin of error. Giuliani and Huckabee were tied for third in the poll at 15 percent each.

paul.west@baltsun.com

Tonight's debate

What: GOP presidential debate

When: 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Where: MSNBC and MSNBC.COM

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