TAMPA/SANFORD, FL — For Florida voters, the choice is clear– either you can vote for Iraq, or for the economy.
With Mitt Romney and John McCain locked in a tight battle that could determine the outcome of the Republican nomination, each candidate spent their final day before the primary focusing on their strongest issue, and largely ignoring all others.
“We have a decision to make at a critical time,” Romney told supporters at a noon rally on Monday held in an aircraft maintenance facility by the Orlando-Sanford Airport. “Are we going to have a president who understands the economy right down to the center of his core, in his DNA like me, or not?”
Later that day in Tampa, McCain, flanked by his newest supporter, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, struck a different tone.
“My friends, I’m going to get right to the point,” he said. “I’m running for President of the United States because I believe I can keep America safe.”
Romney, who used to warn his audiences about the threat posed by global jihad and the desire of radical Islamic terrorists to restore the Caliphate, scrapped such rhetoric as he made his closing pitch to voters.
“Something is happening here in Florida, and you know, it’s a lot of concern about what’s happening in the economy,” he said, with a Falcon 50 aircraft parked behind him. “When I came to Florida, people began asking a lot about the economy. And that’s something that’s in my wheelhouse. You see, I think it’s helpful, if you want to run the economy, to have actually had a job in the private sector, which I’ve had.”
DESPITE HIS DEFEAT in Michigan, where economic issues played a large role, and indications of rising economic anxiety among Americans, McCain didn’t place much emphasis on the economy at his rally.
“We face the transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism that threatens everything we stand for and believe in, that is the greatest force of evil that the nation has ever faced, and my friends, I am prepared to lead,” McCain declared.
Romney recited a list of problems, including making Social Security solvent, ending illegal immigration, and making health care affordable and portable. After describing how Washington had long promised to solve each of them, he ended with the refrain, “They haven’t, we will.”
“Now, there’s another guy running on our side, Senator McCain, who’s a good man, he’s a hero, but his views on the economy, well, I think are summed up by his own statement that it’s not really something he understands that well,” Romney told the crowd. “He said that a couple of times and indicated that when he chooses his vice president, it would have to be somebody who really understood the economy. Well, I do understand the economy.”
The crowd erupted with cheers, and then Romney followed up with, “I’m not going to be any vice president to John McCain, either.”
Romney also blasted the McCain-Lieberman “cap and trade” system to limit carbon dioxide emissions, which he claimed would cost $1,000 a year for a family of four.
When McCain spoke, he reemphasized that he was the only candidate to oppose the Rumsfeld strategy, declaring it “doomed for failure,” and insisting on sending more troops to Iraq when it was unpopular to do so.
He talked about his trip to Iraq last summer when he and Sen. Lindsey Graham met with Gen. David Petraeus.
“We knew that the Democrats were trying to support a date for withdrawal, a date for surrender, and we went back and we took them on, and we beat them,” McCain thundered. “And if they had set that date for surrender my friends, Al Qaeda would be telling the world that they defeated the United States of America. That will never happen on my watch.”
WHILE EACH CANDIDATE did venture onto the other’s turf, they did so only briefly, and quickly shifted the focus back to the area on which they felt most comfortable.
For instance, Romney mentioned his support for expanding the military, but only in the context of explaining that we need a strong economy to support it.
McCain expressed support for green technologies and innovation, and said, “The strength of America is to let American businesses have their way, get the government out of their way.” But then he quickly began talking about how “brave young Americans who are willing to serve this country will get my outstanding support and my leadership.”
While, if pressed, Romney and McCain would no doubt emphasize that both issues are important, it has become clear in which arena each of them feels comfortable.
As Floridians head to the polls today, they could determine whether national security or the economy becomes the dominant issue for the Republicans in 2008.