ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. -- A Category 5 campaign storm that had been forecast for Florida last night failed to materialize as the Republican contenders shied away from direct clashes in a nationally televised forum.
But when McCain was asked by one of the debate questioners whether he thought that the hundreds of millions of dollars in fees that Romney's administration levied on businesses was a tax increase, the Arizona senator replied mildly.
"I'm sure those people that had to pay it did, I imagine," McCain said, then changed the subject to the need to cut government spending.
Perhaps the sharpest questioning of Romney came from one of the debate panelists, Tim Russert of NBC News, who pressed the candidate to reveal how much money he had donated to his campaign.
Romney, a wealthy investor and former venture capitalist, had put in more than $17 million as of September, but he said he would not reveal how much he has spent since then until he was required to under federal campaign law.
He said he was "by far the largest contributor" to his campaign but denied that he was trying to buy the presidency.
"You know, that is always raised" any time a wealthy candidate funds his own campaign, Romney said.
He said he had spent less so far than three other wealthy candidates - New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes - who spent at least $60 million of their own money.
With the pivotal Florida primary only five days away, Romney abandoned the aggressive stance that he has taken against rivals in earlier debates. More significantly, the other candidates muted their criticism of him during the 90-minute debate on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has fallen behind in a state he badly needs to win, took advantage of the statewide TV audience to promote his plan for a national catastrophic insurance pool that would reduce homeowners insurance in Florida. Romney and McCain expressed sympathy for the idea but said there are other, less costly ways of doing it than having U.S. taxpayers subsidize residents of states that are subject to hurricanes and other disasters.
Giuliani commented on the genial tone of the night when moderator Brian Williams of MSNBC asked the former mayor, "What has happened to your campaign?"
Referring to a portion of the debate in which the candidates got to quiz each other, Giuliani noted that "when Mitt Romney asked me a question, you noticed he asked me a very nice question." The former New York mayor went on to say that he had lulled his rivals "into a false sense of security" and would defeat them Tuesday.
McCain, defending his conservative Republican credentials, added that "the reason I have had such strong support from independents is because they know that I will put my country above my party every time."
On economic issues, the candidates shied away from direct clashes. Romney avoided a sharp response when asked by Russert if he trusted McCain as a tax-cutter, since the senator voted against the Bush tax cut in 2001.
"I think he should have voted for them the first time around, and that's just a difference of viewpoints," said Romney, quickly turning to his own credentials. "Right now, as we face tough times, we need to have somebody who understands - if you will, has the private sector, has the business world, has the economy in their DNA. I do. 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."
McCain also rejected an assertion by Russert, who referred to a report that McCain has said he needed to be educated about economics because his expertise is in national security.
"I'm very well versed in economics," responded McCain, pointing to his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee and a Wall Street Journal survey of several economists that listed him as their preference among the Republican candidates.
Romney, McCain and Giuliani expressed support for the $150 billion stimulus package agreed upon yesterday by President Bush and the House of Representatives. All three said the package failed to go far enough, calling for making Bush's tax cuts permanent and for a variety of additional tax breaks for businesses and individuals.
Mike Huckabee took a different tack, saying he worried that the federal government would be borrowing from the Chinese and that consumers would be using some of their money to buy imported goods from China.
"I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated," said the former Arkansas governor. He said he would have preferred to see the federal government use the same amount of money to add two lanes to Interstate 95 from Bangor, Maine, to Miami, which would improve the nation's infrastructure, provide jobs and help the environment by reducing fuel wasted in traffic jams.
During Romney's term as governor, economic growth in Massachusetts lagged behind the national average. A Boston labor economist, Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Market Studies at Northeastern University, has written that economic performance under Romney was "one of the worst in the country."