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Florida Primary: Big Prize for GOP Hopefuls

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Florida voters go to the polls tomorrow to choose the winner of the biggest prize so far in the Republican presidential contest. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians have already voted, but candidates are working hard to get the votes that remain, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Mitt Romney's stock has been rising in Florida, even as the Dow Jones Index has been falling. During a visit to a flight simulator factory outside Tampa this weekend, Romney touted his background as a successful business consultant and private equity investor as just what's needed to rev up the sputtering U.S. economy.

M: Now, I've spent my life in the real economy. I know what it's like to have a job, and I think it's helpful to have a president who knows what it's like to work in the real economy.

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HORSLEY: That message appealed to Christine Thompson(ph), who has already checked her early voting ballot for Romney. She came to the factory just to see him in person.

M: I'm a - been a small business owner. I know what it's like to hire people and to have to fire people and to deal with the taxes and to know somebody who's been in business, who knows how to run a business. I trust that more than a politician.

HORSLEY: Florida voters are getting plenty of personal attention from politicians, but there is no way to shake hands with all 18 million people in the state. So Romney has also been pushing his economic message with television ads in both English and Spanish.

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U: (Spanish spoken)

HORSLEY: According to the Nielsen Company, Romney had run nearly 4,500 TV ads in Florida through last week. That's almost 10 times as many ads as John McCain has run here. But the Arizona senator has picked up a string of high-profile endorsements in Florida, including Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who called McCain the best man for the job.

G: He is a leader on economic issues, and safety and security, which are so important to the people of my state and the people of our country at this critical time in our nation's history.

HORSLEY: Despite all the recent focus on the economy, McCain has tried to change the subject. He hosted a roundtable discussion in Tampa on national security, an issue where he feels he has the edge.

INSKEEP: I know that we are facing difficult economic times. And I still believe the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is that of radical Islamic extremism.

HORSLEY: McCain talked, as he often does, about the many active-duty military and veterans in Florida. His experience is reassuring to Terry Varvle(ph), who wore a Vietnam veterans pin on his lapel.

M: I feel safe with someone that knows the world theater, and not the one where they say on-the-job trained. And that's what I feel like with the other candidates.

HORSLEY: Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered his own capsule summary of the race in a speech to Sarasota Republicans. He says Romney is attacking McCain for a shortage of economic know-how, while McCain is attacking Romney for a lack of national security experience.

M: The choice is clear. Floridians deserve someone who's been tested and proven in both areas - and that's me.

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HORSLEY: Political analyst Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida says much of their focus will be along Interstate 4, between Tampa and Orlando, an area that often tips the balance between the social conservatives of Florida's northern panhandle and more moderate voters.

INSKEEP: Look at all these candidates and where they are in Florida today, and they're clumped right here in that I-4 corridor that we lovingly say in our state is the highway to heaven for politicians.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.