Taxes take precedence in Florida

Republican presidential candidates attempting to break through and win the largest state prize to date are trying to use the promise of tax cuts to their advantage.

The questions of which taxes to cut and by how much figure to come up tonight as the five remaining GOP contenders debate at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. It will be their only faceoff before next week's primary.

A credit crunch and drops in the stock market have made the economy a major topic for both parties. It has special resonance in Florida, where Tuesday's ballot includes a statewide referendum designed to restrict property tax assessments, which in turn would reduce revenue to local governments.

"You're going to see the tax issue be the No. 1 issue in Florida in a presidential year," said Gary Reese, editor of the political newsletter Florida Insider.

John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul each offer different ways to cut taxes, both in the short term to jump-start the economy and in the long run for growth. The debate starts at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

Republican strategist Scott Reed said Florida provides the "springboard" to contests in New York, California and 20 other states Feb. 5. "Now it's about momentum," Reed said.

Tax cuts have been an article of Republican faith for some time, especially since Ronald Reagan's 1981 economic package that called for a 30% reduction in taxes. Stan Collender, a federal budget analyst, said tax cuts won't do much to address problems within the lending industry but are essential to reaching the GOP's base. "It's like an entry fee into the game," he said.

He cautions that plans offered by the candidates may not be relevant later.

"By the time any of these guys get into office, the situation will have morphed into something else," said Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications.

Rising home assessments are a pointed political issue in Florida, which relies heavily on property taxes.

The ballot proposal would cut property taxes by about $1.6 billion and give homeowners an average tax cut of $240 a year. It also would increase the homestead exemption by $25,000.

Vivian Myrtetus, a spokeswoman for the tax referendum, said it will probably bring more Republicans to the polls. Democrats have outpaced Republicans in early voting for the primary, even though Democratic candidates are not campaigning here because of a dispute between the state and national parties over the contest's date.

The GOP candidates prepared Wednesday for their debate by touting their economic credentials.

McCain, seeking to capitalize on victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, met with local business leaders in Orlando. McCain said Americans face "significant challenges," but "the fundamentals of our economy are still strong."

Mitt Romney, who won delegate contests in Michigan, Nevada and Wyoming, continues to stress his experience in private business. "I won't need a briefing on how the economy works," Romney told an audience in Sarasota.

Rudy Giuliani, who has made Florida a make-or-break state, cited his executive experience, telling supporters in Estero, "I was tested dealing with an economy that was in very bad shape when I became mayor of New York City."

Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses but finished second in South Carolina, faces financial pressures of his own. Some campaign aides have been laid off, while others work for no pay. He has promoted his plan for a "fair tax" or national sales tax.

Paul calls for lower taxes and less spending to reduce the federal debt.

A new poll shows McCain leading Romney in Florida, 25%-23%. Giuliani, who once led in the state, slipped and is tied with Huckabee at 15%. The poll by the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald of 800 registered and frequent voters was taken Sunday-Tuesday and has a margin of error of +/—5.1 percentage points.

How the GOP contenders would reduce taxes:

The Republican presidential contenders debate today in Boca Raton, Fla. Reducing the bite on taxpayers is a likely topic. A sample of their plans:

Sources: The Associated Press, campaign websites and USA TODAY research

Contributing: Associated Press