PENSACOLA, Fla. - Republican Mitt Romney described his business expertise Friday as the best antidote for the nation's economic ills on Friday and taunted rival John McCain after he suggested his Senate chairmanship was equal to private sector experience.
"There's an arrogance that sets into Washington, that somehow they know everything, that people in Washington know better than the people of America," Romney said of his rival amid their neck-and-neck Florida GOP presidential primary campaign.
Mocking McCain's "straight-talk" slogan, he added: "Now he's engaging in 'Washington talk.' Washington talk says that somehow, because you've been in Washington, and you've been on a committee, that you somehow know about how the jobs of this country have been created."
To underscore his point, Romney read aloud past quotes from McCain in which the Arizona senator acknowledged being better versed in foreign affairs and military matters than economic issues. The audience laughed in delight as Romney targeted McCain in this Navy town where the former aviator went to flight school.
Later, during a news conference in Clearwater, he said voters aren't "looking for a talker or a committeeman or someone who loves to get together and debate. They're looking for someone who can actually lead."
Speaking to reporters on his bus elsewhere in Florida, McCain insisted his service on the Senate Commerce Committee is better preparation for overseeing the U.S. economy than Romney's work as a business consultant, venture capitalist and Olympics CEO.
McCain noted the committee has broad jurisdiction over many aspects of the economy.
"Running an investment company is probably a good thing to do. Making national policy concerning our economy is probably more beneficial to the nation," said McCain.
He went on to criticize Romney's economic record as governor, highlighting tax and fee hikes enacted under Romney, as well as job losses and the institution of a health care plan that is proving to be more costly than originally estimated.
Rudy Giuliani, seeking to fight his way back into the leaders pack, argued in Sarasota that neither Romney nor McCain is strong on both the economy and security.
"Governor Romney is attacking Senator McCain for being a Washington insider with not enough expertise and understanding in economic matters. And Senator McCain is attacking Mitt Romney for being a manager, not a leader, and lacking experience in foreign policy and national security matters," the former New York mayor said.
"The choice is clear. Floridians deserve someone whose been tested and proven in both areas," he said to cheers at the Sarasota County GOP Lincoln Day dinner. "If you choose me, you have both."
Underpinning the debate is the growing fear of a recession, as well as the ticking electoral clock. The winner of Florida's primary on Tuesday will get 57 GOP delegates; over 1,000 more will be chosen in more than 20 primaries and caucuses a week later.
Romney tried to build on a strong debate performance Thursday night by reiterating his outsider's credentials as a businessman. He blamed government paralysis in Washington for failure to expand health insurance coverage, end illegal immigration and wean the country from foreign oil.
"And part of what we're seeing right now in our economy is one of the manifestations of failing to act on the part of Washington," Romney said in addressing the Latin Builders Association Inc. conference in Miami.
Playing on the decades he spent in private business while McCain and fellow rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee were in government, Romney said, "I happen to believe that the only way to get America on track economically is to have a president who actually understands how the economy works."
Romney headed the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and was Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007 but spent most of his career as a business consultant and later founded Bain Capital.
Romney has been accused of making millions through massive layoffs and heartless cost-cutting, but he said none of that was without personal pain or a greater goal in mind.
"I've had to lay people off; it's an awful feeling," he said. "Someone who thinks that you're a bad person if you lay someone off doesn't understand. You feel bad. It's probably the hardest thing I've done in business, was asking a person to be let go, letting somebody go. ... It's an indication the business isn't doing well."
Recalling his start as a venture capitalist, Romney told the builders: "It takes a degree of chutzpah to go to someone and say, 'Give me your money and I will invest it for you, and I'll give you back 80 percent of the profit I earn, and I'm going to keep 20 percent of the profit I earn. I'm going to charge you a 2 percent fee for taking your money, and by the way, if I lose your money, too bad."'
As the audience of several hundred builders laughed, he added: "I don't share in the downside, I only share in the upside."