Rudy Giuliani said Sunday he's the best pick in the GOP field for any voter concerned about lower taxes and less government spending, counting on a shift in emphasis to the economy to boost him to victory in this must-win state.
"The case for me is that I am the strongest fiscal conservative in the race," he said on ABC's "This Week," launching a two-day bus tour through Florida nine days before the state's primary.
The main focus of Giuliani's early campaign was his response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York. That leadership claim still is prominent, just not dominant. The 2001 attacks themselves are only tangentially mentioned. Instead, he talks broadly — and briefly — about how he would prevail in the "Islamic terrorist war against us."
Last month, with his poll numbers in decline, Giuliani sought to put this core issue back to the forefront of his campaign. He aired ads referencing the attacks and delivered a national security speech in New Hampshire.
Economy trumps war on stump
But he continued having trouble wresting national security conservatives away from GOP rival John McCain. At the same time, fears of a national recession have given pocketbook issues greater importance in voters' minds, in Florida and elsewhere.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who has traveled frequently with Giuliani to emphasize his security credentials, said he's seen a remarkable shift in crowd questions. "There's more interest right now in the economy," Freeh said.
So Giuliani has been making a more aggressive argument that his two terms as New York mayor give him the strongest record to deal with a troublesome economy. Even critics acknowledge he was successful in stabilizing a city once on the brink of collapse.
On Sunday, Giuliani used that to paint a contrast with his rivals, though none by name.
Giuliani repeated what has become a common refrain from him and, even more pointedly, from his surrogates on McCain: that the Arizona GOP senator voted against Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and "doesn't have that same fervor" about tax cuts that Giuliani does.
"I think it comes from the fact that he hasn't had the kind of experiences that I have — running America's largest city, being involved in America's 17th largest economy, running the second or third largest government," Giuliani said at a banquet hall here.
Taking on rivals
McCain dismissed the criticism, saying he expects attacks as "the front-runner."
Another Giulini line was clearly meant to spread the criticism to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as well. Polls show the four in an essentially tied race for the GOP primary here.
"Sometimes people that are in Washington too long, in state capitols for too long, they think ... it's about the central government," Giuliani said. "They can have a plan to straighten things out for you. Beware of central governments that have plans to straighten things out for you."
He took his argument perhaps a step too far at his last event of the day, in Celebration, Fla., saying that "none of my opponents have experience cutting taxes."
In fact, Romney tried to cut millions in taxes while running Massachusetts and largely failed, but not completely. He got state lawmakers to give back retroactive capital gains taxes, and pushed through tax credits for investment, manufacturing and research, sales tax holidays and property tax relief for older people. Huckabee, who advocated a series of tax increases as governor, also signed a broad-based, nearly $100 million income tax relief measure for poor and middle-income residents.
Giuliani's remarks were dominated by superlative claims about his own abilities, and promises related to the economy: "the biggest tax cut plan of anyone running," "my record in tax cutting is so much better than anyone else," "the most successful government turnaround in the last 30 or 40 years," and "there will be nobody better at controlling that (federal) spending than me."
His latest television ad quotes from conservatives such as Steve Forbes — and even Romney — to make his case on fiscal issues.
Betting it all on Florida
Giuliani also defended his decision to pull out of the early-state contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and elsewhere to pin all hopes on Florida. Giuliani's campaign has become a win-by-losing gamble, and he upped his bet even further Sunday by saying straight out that the Sunshine State is not just pivotal — but determinative. Candidates usually work to lower expectations, not raise them.
"Florida is going to pick, I believe, the next Republican nominee for president of the United States," Giuliani told a small crowd in a Tampa restaurant.