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Debate Will Focus on Economy, But Campaign Already Has

The debate among the Republican candidates, once most focused on immigration and abortion, now centers increasingly on who is the best man to cut taxes and spending. On consecutive days in New Hampshire last week and in an endless barrage of e-mails from their campaigns, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani warred over who is the most conservative on fiscal issues. Romney touts his record of vetoing spending bills from the Democratic legislature in Massachusetts and blasted Giuliani for opposing in the 1990's proposal called the line-item veto that would have allowed President Clinton to block specific spending items in bills. In contrast, Giuliani touts his record of cutting taxes in New York and his campaign argued Romney's record on improving the economy in Massachusetts was not as strong as Giuliani's in New York.

The candidates are likely to emphasize these positions in a debate today in Dearborn, Michigan hosted by the Wall Street Journal, CNBC and MSNBC that will focus on economic issues. Many Republicans blame the party's losses in 2006 on excessive spending that irritated the base, and while polls suggest independents turned off by the Iraq War had a more important role, the GOP's White House hopefuls have seized on fiscal issues as a way to appeal to Republican voters. When Romney put out his first piece of direct mail to voters in New Hampshire last week, it was about his record of vetoes and his proposal to eliminate taxes on dividends and capital gains for people who make under $200,000 a year. He has a radio ad now on the air noting that he has signed a pledge from a conservative group called the Americans for Tax Reform in which he has promised not to raises taxes. Giuliani and McCain have not signed the pledge.

On the stump, Giuliani is hawking a proposal in which he would only replace one of every two federal workers that retire, a way to reduce the size of government. John McCain and Fred Thompson, along with Giuliani and Romney, suggested spending got out of control even when Republicans ran both the Congress and the White House.

The attention to spending isn't just from the candidates; in Washington, both Republicans on Capitol Hill and President Bush are moving in this direction as well, as Bush himself vetoed a popular bill that would provide health care to low-income children and adults last week, arguing it was a step toward government-run health care. This emphasis on spending is a shift from where Bush said he would take Republicans in 2000; his "compassionate conservatism" was in many ways a rebuke of the GOP leaders on Capitol Hill who called for eliminating the Department of Education.

All of the GOP candidates support extending the tax cuts on both individuals and also capital gains and dividends Bush signed in his first term. Romney's call for ever further tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, estimated to produce more than $32 billion in savings, is the most specific proposal from the candidates, although Thompson has been touting a proposal to reduce the growth in benefits in Social Security to ensure the solvency of the retirement program. The budget deficit seems mainly to be getting attention from Hillary Clinton; look for the GOP candidates to cast their proposals on taxes and spending as a tool for economic growth rather than a tool for reducing the deficit.

--Perry Bacon Jr.

By Washington Post editors  |  October 9, 2007; 10:48 AM ET
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