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Economic stimulus backed

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Leading Repub-lican presidential contenders agreed in a campaign debate Thursday night that the newly minted economic stimulus package marks a good start, but does not do enough to cut taxes.

“It’s something I support and I look forward to taking it further,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who backs permanent tax cuts along with the rebates that are at the heart of the bipartisan agreement between President Bush and House leaders.

“I will vote for it,” said Sen. John McCain, the only contender on stage with a Senate seat. He quickly added he wants the tax cuts Bush won from Congress in 2001 and 2003 to be made permanent.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded along similar lines in the opening moments of the debate five days before the pivotal Florida presidential primary. “I think this package, for what it does, is OK and I would support it, but I think it does not go far enough,” he said. “We should be very aggressive.”

The economy has become the most important issue in the campaign, particularly with fears of a recession rising.

In recent days, the GOP presidential hopefuls had outlined stimulus packages of their own, most of which relied to a far greater degree on permanent tax cuts than the agreement between President Bush and Democratic leaders announced earlier Thursday in Washington.

About two-thirds of the tax relief would be delivered in rebate checks to 117 million families beginning in May. Individual taxpayers would get up to $600 in rebates, working couples $1,200 and those with children an additional $300 per child under the agreement.

Businesses would get $50 billion in incentives to invest in new plants and equipment.

Romney and McCain are co-front-runners in the polls in Florida, a state where Giuliani has devoted nearly his entire campaign effort for the past two weeks. The three men shared the debate stage with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman.

The primary offers the winner 57 Republican National Convention delegates. It is the first big state to vote in the nominating campaign, the first winner-take-all contest in terms of delegates, and the final election before a virtual national primary on Feb. 5 with voting in 24 states .

NBC’s Brian Williams, moderator of the 90-minute event, pointed out that in recent years, no Republican has won the party’s presidential nomination without first winning the Florida primary.

Romney and McCain have sparred in recent days over the economy and tax cuts – and the former Massachusetts governor didn’t miss an early chance to poke at his rival.

“Senator McCain voted against them,” he said of the Bush tax cuts. “He now says they should be made permanent.”

Romney didn’t say so, but he initially sidestepped questions about the tax cuts when he was governor. He told reporters earlier in the week that it wasn’t often his habit to comment on federal legislation while he was governor.

Huckabee offered qualified support for the stimulus package, saying he was concerned the Bush tax rebates would be financed by borrowing from foreign lenders such as China, and that consumers would then turn around and spend the money on Chinese products.

“I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated the most by the package,” said the former Arkansas governor.

The fifth candidate, Paul, said, “The government does have a responsibility, but it’s supposed to lower taxes, get rid of regulations and devise a monetary policy that makes some sense.”

For Giuliani and Huckabee, it represented perhaps a last, best hope to shake up a statewide — and national — campaign that appears to be slowly leaving them behind.

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