ORLANDO, Fla. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney compared himself favorably to two of his Republican White House rivals on Monday yet made no mention of a third, underscoring his strategy for next week's Florida primary.
In television interviews and personal appearances, Romney said that unlike himself, both Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would "have a relatively difficult time" strengthening an economy that is in danger of falling into a recession.
"I've spent my life, 25 years ... in the world of business," he said. "I know why jobs come and go."
McCain has been in the Senate for more than two decades, and Giuliani was a government prosecutor and two-term mayor before he began his own company.
At another point, Romney aligned himself with Giuliani, who has recently criticized McCain on tax cuts.
"I think on this one Rudy is right," Romney said. "John McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts. He says he would still do it again."
By contrast, Romney did not mention former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a third rival in the race for the presidential nomination.
Romney's strategists say the Republican primary electorate can be divided roughly into three categories, the first dominated by voters attracted to conservative economic policies, the second concerned most with national security and the third comprised of evangelical Christian conservatives.
In this view, Romney must battle McCain and Giuliani for support in the first two groups and hope to more gently peel away some of Huckabee's supporters in the third.
The former governor spent part of his time during the day advocating an economic stimulus plan he detailed late last week.
It includes immediate tax rebates for individual taxpayers as well as a new, 7.5 percent tax bracket for personal income that currently is taxed at 10 percent.
Romney also wants to eliminate the Social Security payroll tax for workers over 65.
"I want people who are over 65 to stay in the work force," he told an audience in Daytona. "They've already paid for Social Security. Why make them keep paying and paying and paying?"
The Social Security proposal would also free businesses from paying their portion of the payroll tax on workers over 65.
Romney did not say how, or whether, he would replenish the payroll tax proceeds that currently flow into the Social Security trust funds.
The largest part of Romney's new stimulus package would allow businesses to lower their taxes by writing off the cost of new equipment immediately, rather than gradually over a period of years.
The former Massachusetts governor also favors an increase of at least 100,000 troops in the Army, a proposal designed to appeal to voters in a state with a large military presence.
Throughout the day, he indirectly addressed the type of social issues that have powered Huckabee's ascent in the race. More than once during the day, Romney said that "before people have kids, they should get married."
After his weekend win in the Nevada caucuses, Romney leads in the delegate chase, and alone among the contenders he has the personal wealth to fund his own campaign in the two dozen primaries and caucuses that will be held on Feb. 5. At the same time, two of his three victories have been in caucuses where he drew little or no competition, and apart from his victory in the Michigan primary, he has had difficulty generating much support in other early states.
McCain won the South Carolina primary, the marquee event on last weekend's calendar for Republicans, and heads into Florida hoping to ride a wave of momentum to victory next week.
Giuliani was the national front-runner for a time, but has been forced into a series of gradual retreats in recent weeks, abandoning Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina by turn after concluding they were unwinnable. The result has been to make Florida a must-win state for him.
Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but has struggled to expand his base of support beyond the evangelical voters who helped him there. He finished second behind McCain in South Carolina, is short on funds, and his ability to compete in the round of Feb. 5 states may hinge on his performance in Florida.