SWEETWATER, Fla. (AP) – Republican Mitt Romney sought to lock up the Florida primary by refusing to talk Sunday about little else but the economic jitters confronting the nation. His rivals took different tacks toward the same goal as they fanned out across the Sunshine State.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, lashed top rival John McCain for admitting less familiarity with the economy than foreign affairs, telling an earsplitting rally outside Miami: "No one needs to give me a briefing on the economy. I won't need to choose a vice president that understands the economy — because I know the economy."
A day after McCain accused him of supporting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, Romney also told a reporter McCain was "lying" before catching himself and saying, "I'm saying he made a dishonest comment. I misspoke."
McCain defended himself at a town hall meeting in Polk City when a questioner challenged the Arizona senator's votes in 2001 and 2003 against Bush administration tax cuts. McCain now says those tax cuts should be made permanent.
"I opposed the tax cuts because I saw no restraint in the growth of spending. We let spending get out of control," said the self-styled maverick.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani contrasted himself with the two in both style and substance.
"Senator McCain and Governor Romney are doing such a good job of attacking each other, how about voting for somebody who's not attacking? Vote for me, Rudy Giuliani," he said while visiting the Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach. "Presidential election is not about name-calling. Presidential election is not about gotcha and almost, like, high school politics."
In Vero Beach, he said: "I've traveled up and down the state of Florida, talked to a lot of people and listened to you. That's why I support a national catastrophe fund. I'm the only Republican candidate in this race supporting it — and I need your vote in order to accomplish it."
Polls show McCain and Romney atop the field, with Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee lagging. At stake Tuesday are 57 delegates to the national convention, and momentum heading into the Super Tuesday contests, when more than 20 states hold nominating events on Feb. 5.
Romney held only one public event, a rally in a Cuban-American community. Introduced by his son Craig, who spoke Spanish, the former governor wore Cuban-style guayabera shirt given to him by officials at a Bay of Pigs Museum.
He recalled starting his venture capital firm with support from Latin Americans, including a family from El Salvador whose son was kidnapped and killed by rebels thought to be supported by Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"I learned that when Castro has money, bad things happen, and I vowed that I would never give in to Fidel Castro, nor must we ever," he said to cheers.
As he shook hands after the rally, Romney asked, "Why are there so many beautiful women here? I haven't figured this out. Cuban-American woman are gorgeous."
A C-Span camera crew also caught him saying of McCain "he's lying," before changing his wording and then returning to the reporter who had asked him about McCain's criticism on Saturday. "Make sure you correct that, OK?" Romney said.
McCain made one stop with Gov. Charlie Crist, a fellow Republican who endorsed him Saturday night. They greeted diners at a Tampa cafe.
"I think it's going to give us momentum in order for us to win next Tuesday," McCain said of Crist's backing.
He later campaigned with Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who endorsed him Friday, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee who is now an independent.
The Vietnam veteran also told reporters Iraq is the most important issue facing the nation.
"Even if the economy is the, quote, number one issue, the real issue will remain America's security," McCain said. "And if they choose to say, 'Look, I do not need this guy, because he's not as good on home loan mortgages,' or whatever it is, I understand about that, I will accept that verdict. I am running because of the transcendental challenge of the 21st century, which is radical Islamic extremism."
Before hitting Florida's streets, Romney, McCain, Giuliani and Huckabee took advantage of the free media available to them on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Huckabee said he was not surprised by former President Clinton's aggressive tone toward Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in recent weeks. Obama ended up routing Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, in South Carolina's Democratic primary on Saturday.
"There are not two people who are better at street-fighting politics that Bill and Hillary Clinton. I've been telling people a long time, don't underestimate the scrappiness with which they'll approach this race," said Huckabee, who grew up in Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope, Ark.
The former governor added: "The one thing you have to keep your eyes on is that tactics will change but the goal will never, ever fade. That is: win, whatever it takes to do it. They didn't get to where they are … by just sort of mapping out a plan and saying, 'That's what we're going to do, regardless of the results.' If the results start changing, as they did in South Carolina, look for different tactics. They'll do what they think it will require in order to win."
Giuliani, who appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation," acknowledged being surprised by Crist's endorsement of McCain. He also deflected a question about whether he would drop out if he loses Florida, since he previously had said the winner would become the Republican nominee.
"We're going to win in Florida," Giuliani said, laughing. "We have been campaigning here very steadily since the early voting began. There's been an unprecedented, I believe, amount of early voting, so, I think we're going to do very well here."
Associated Press writers Liz Sidoti in Port St. Lucie and Libby Quaid in Polk City contributed to this report.