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Candidates turn attention to gyrating markets

During a wild day on Wall St. and growing fears about a weakened economy, presidential candidates sought Tuesday to convince voters that they could handle a crisis.
/ Source: The New York Times

The weakened economy and the turmoil in financial markets have helped to cement a gradual shift in emphasis in the presidential campaign to domestic issues from national security, giving the candidates an opportunity on Tuesday to spotlight economic proposals and try to convince voters that they could handle a crisis.

Even before the stock market opened the candidates were rolling out, or reintroducing, stimulus plans, speeches, television advertisements and statements that suggested how they would handle a situation like this. There were differences in what they were proposing — the Republicans pressed more for tax cuts for individuals and business; the Democrats called for increasing government spending — but the urgency of the response reflected a common calculation that the race for president had changed in a potentially fundamental way.

“When things like this occur, I’d point out how important it is to have a president who has had a job in the private sector: I have been in the private sector for 25 years,” former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said to a packed house at Wings, a restaurant here 50 miles north of Miami. His remarks coincided with a television advertisement he began running here that played up his business experience.

Economy surpasses war as campaign focus
It was not clear how much the economic trouble — the stock market’s gyrations, the emergency intervention by the Federal Reserve and the spike in mortgage foreclosures — might change the rules of the game, or for how long.

Still, there was a consensus among all the candidates that the economy had supplanted the war as an issue and, in the process, changed the dynamics of both the Republican and Democratic contests. Mr. Romney and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York both called news conferences to talk about the issue; Mrs. Clinton’s campaign prepared an advertisement describing her economic plan.

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois cited his plan for jump-starting the economy with $250 tax rebates, as he delivered an economic address at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “We woke up this morning to bad news from Wall Street,” Mr. Obama said, a refrain that was echoed throughout the day by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Mr. Romney and Mrs. Clinton appeared best positioned to benefit from a sharp shift in voter concern from foreign affairs to the economy.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll of Democratic primary voters earlier this month found that Mrs. Clinton was seen as best equipped to handle the economy by 46 percent of respondents, compared with 33 percent who named Mr. Obama and 13 percent who named former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Mrs. Clinton’s emphasis on the issue dovetailed with her effort to present herself as more prepared for the presidency than Mr. Obama.

Seeking to calm frayed nerves
Mr. Romney’s swift move to concentrate on the economy, to two audiences and a news conference Tuesday morning, reflected the belief by his advisers that his managerial background was as much an asset to him in this kind of environment as Senator John McCain’s military background was for him at a time when the war and national security were at the head of voter concerns.

Mr. Romney, in a speech to Jewish leaders in Boca Raton, sought to portray an air of reassuring confidence as he went through an economic plan that included tax cuts to business to encourage investment, as well as to individuals to spur spending.

“Every time I’ve seen things really get scary and the markets really collapse, I put aside my fear and say — aha, this is a buying opportunity,” he said. “My experience is, whatever goes down goes up.”

Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York was more sketchy as he answered questions about how he would handle the financial upheaval. Addressing a reporter he knew from New York, he pointed to his experience as mayor in suggesting that he was prepared to handle the crisis, but offered no details on what he thought should be in a stimulus package, or what taxes should be cut.

“Congress and the president should do a stimulus package and they should do a spending reduction package,” he said. “You’re familiar with that; we used to do that in New York.”

A problem for McCain?
The shift could prove particularly complicated for Mr. McCain, of Arizona, who, in his own view, began gathering strength as a candidate after conditions in Iraq appeared to improve; he was long a proponent of increasing troop strength there, and national security and the war are the two mainstays of his campaign appearance. He brought up the action by the Federal Reserve before a question was asked at a news conference in Pensacola, and in a speech there, pushed elements of his own economic plan.

Those include eliminating the alternative minimum tax, making the Bush tax cuts permanent and cutting the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent. “And, my friends, we’ve got to cut spending,” he said. “Otherwise we will continue to borrow money from the Chinese.”

The Washington Post/ABC News poll found no appreciable differences among Republicans in their ratings of whether Mr. Romney, Mr. McCain or Mr. Giuliani would be best at dealing with the economy.

A populist opening
Mr. Edwards on the Democratic side and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas on the Republican side have both run campaigns that have hit populist themes — criticizing abuses by big business and Wall Street — and seemed to view the developments as something of a vindication of their arguments.

“They just told me as I was coming in that the Dow is already down 400 points,” Mr. Edwards said as he entered a town hall in Conway, S.C., prompting gasps from the crowd. “The truth is that there’s a disconnect between Washington and the government paying attention to what’s happening in real people’s lives as opposed to just paying attention to what’s happening on Wall Street.”

Reporting was contributed by Jeff Zeleny in Greenville, S.C.; Patrick Healy in Washington; Julie Bosman in Conway, S.C.; Michael Powell in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; and Sarah Wheaton in Coral Beach.