The Republican presidential field may find the political ground shifting under its feet in Florida, where the faltering economy is fast surpassing national security as the cutting issue in next week's primary, when GOP voters could clear up the blurred contest for the party's nomination.
Driven partly by a referendum on local property taxes that shares the Jan. 29 primary ballot, the economy is changing the political terrain of the Sunshine State, according to veteran GOP political operatives who believe that could help Mitt Romney in a crowded primary field where each candidate has some claim to the state's diverse constituencies.
With its primary open only to registered Republicans, Fred Thompson out of the race, and Mike Huckabee pulling back, Florida may be Romney's best chance to prevent John McCain from breaking away before Feb. 5, a virtual national primary with contests in 21 states.
"Things have changed dramatically in the last couple of months," said Charles "Tre" Evers, an Orlando-based consultant. "National security and the war on terror were for a long time the number one and number two issues, but the economy and general pocketbook issues have been sneaking up."
That may help Romney, he said, especially in the sprawling Orlando area, "where people are starting to feel the pain."
"The economy is becoming a huge concern in Florida," agreed Brett Doster, a Tallahassee consultant who was executive director of President Bush's 2004 reelection effort in Florida. "It's much higher on people's radar screens now."
Doster, who like Evers is not aligned in the race, said Romney's campaign will try to exploit the economy issue against McCain, who has strength in the state's large active-duty and retired military population.
In the Jan. 15 primary in his native Michigan, Romney stressed his business credentials and a pledge of federal research money to aid the automotive industry, catching McCain flatfooted and thumping the senator from Arizona in the primary. McCain's campaign accused Romney of pandering, but two days later McCain unveiled an economic stimulus package of permanent tax breaks for businesses and on Saturday won the South Carolina primary.
With Bush and congressional leaders negotiating a short-term stimulus package in the $145 billion range, the economic debate is now heating up among the Republican presidential hopefuls, who had been slower than their Democratic counterparts to address the issue.
Romney is talking about economic issues at every campaign stop in Florida and yesterday launched a TV ad touting his "life in the real economy" - in business, leading the 2002 Olympics, and as Massachusetts governor. Romney also has taken the wraps off his stimulus plan, a $233 billion package that is a mix of temporary and permanent tax cuts for individuals and businesses and a proposal to loosen limits on home buyer loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration.
Rudy Giuliani, who hopes Florida will save his sinking candidacy, earlier this month proposed a multitrillion-dollar package of tax cuts ("the largest in history," he called it) and after seven weeks of virtual disengagement, is signaling he is not going down without a fight.
Taking a rare shot at McCain, Giuliani's campaign issued a release headlined "John McCain: Not a fi$cal conservative," cuffing McCain not only for opposing the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, but also voting for tax increases at least 52 times in the past 20 years.
Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's spokeswoman, fired back: "It's not surprising to see that the Giuliani campaign is launching misleading attacks on a day where new poll numbers show John McCain beating Rudy Giuliani decisively in his home state of New York. John McCain has a long record of fighting for tax relief and controlling spending."
She was referring to a Siena College poll suggesting that McCain was leading Giuliani by 12 percentage points in New York, a stunning reversal of Giuliani's 33-point lead over McCain in December.
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, has proposed what may be the most radical tax change of all - replacing all taxes on income with a 30-percent national sales tax on new goods and services.
It is unclear whether voters believe massive tax cuts are realistic when the nation is at war and the federal budget is awash in red ink. But the Republicans, who have wrangled more sharply so far over issues such as illegal immigration and their national security credentials and policies, are clearly responding to a growing unease in their voting base about the future of the economy. In Florida, a state with distinctive regional interests, it could become an overriding issue.
Evers said the Jan. 29 ballot question to amend the state constitution and grant property tax relief is focusing attention on the economic pressures affecting voters at a time when the state budget is under stress.
Charlie Crist, a first-term Republican governor who is pushing hard for passage, predicted that the ballot issue will increase turnout statewide and that the measure, which requires 60 percent approval, will be approved.
"I don't talk to too many Floridians who don't want their taxes cut," he said in a phone interview with the Globe.