Republican presidential hopefuls Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are tussling for the title of "strongest fiscal conservative" as they seek to portray themselves as tax-cutting, bureaucracy-slaying champions of small government.
The candidate who wins the moniker could get a big boost from voters in the GOP primary battle, political observers say.
"It's a unifying issue among Republicans," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "Republicans disagree on social issues, but you'll get a lot less of a family feud when it comes to basic economic principles. The social conservatives like it, the libertarians like it, and your old-fashioned Main Street Republicans like it. It's one of the safest things you can do."
Despite being attacked by Romney as "a big spender from the big city," Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, appears to have a stronger claim to the fiscal conservative label than the ex-governor of Massachusetts, pundits and interest groups say.
"I think both Romney and Giuliani are singing off the same song sheet by advocating less federal spending, lower taxes and less regulation of the economy," said Patrick Toomey, president of The Club for Growth, which endorses fiscally conservative GOP candidates. "But if you look just at the bottom line and say who accomplished more, I think you have to give the edge to Mayor Giuliani."
As New York's mayor for eight years, Giuliani eliminated more than a dozen taxes, held spending to less than the rate of inflation and population growth, and cut the workforce of most city departments while adding uniformed police officers and teachers.
"He was dealing with a lot deeper problems and a lot less power (than Romney)," Pitney said. "That makes his accomplishments all the more impressive."
Romney, who served one four-year term as governor, tried to reduce the Massachusetts state income tax rate from 5.3% to 5% but was thwarted by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature. He vetoed more than 800 spending measures he considered excessive, but lawmakers overturned more than 700 of them. Like Giuliani, he held spending to less than the rate of inflation and eliminated many government jobs.
"I think both of them have a strong case to make, but that means that each of them are going to spend a lot of time trying to poke holes in the other one's record," said Dan Schnur, a California political analyst and veteran Republican campaign strategist.
The two rivals spent the last Republican debate and half of their news releases in recent weeks taking potshots at one another on the issue, releasing a slew of contradictory, often exaggerated claims about their records. Giuliani has proclaimed that, "I led, he lagged," when comparing his tax-cutting record to Romney's. The former governor, in turn, has compared Giuliani to liberal Democrats in Congress for his opposition to giving the president a line-item veto over the federal budget.
The brawl may end up helping both candidates by taking attention away from social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control, political analysts say. Social conservatives generally view Giuliani as too liberal on those issues, and some are skeptical of Romney's recent move to the right and his conversion to the anti-abortion cause.
"Both Romney and Giuliani have some liability with social conservatives for different reasons," Toomey said. "So it's all the more important that they be considered economic conservatives."
It's also an issue that, unlike abortion or Iraq, won't cause either candidate any real grief in the general election against the Democratic candidate.
"Heck, even Democrats claim to be fiscal conservatives," Pitney said. "It's not going to be the biggest issue in the general election, but it's not going to hurt them. It might even help."