Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio called for Congress to continue the tax cuts begun under former President George W. Bush but acknowledged "they won't pay for themselves'' at a Fort Lauderdale town hall meeting Saturday.
The cuts are increasingly taking center stage in the 2010 campaign as Democrats seek to remind voters of the unpopular former president, and Republicans argue they know better how to turn the economy around.
"Taxes all across the board are going to go up,'' Rubio told a supportive crowd of about 125 people at the "Reclaim America'' forum at the Broward County Convention Center. "That's the direction the leadership in Washington is trying to take our country.''
Rubio was flanked by the No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, who professed his allegiance to the GOP rising star at the forum and later Saturday at the Miami-Dade Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner.
"I've got Marco mania,'' said Cantor, who is at the forefront of the GOP crusade to take back control of Congress in the November election. "Not only does Florida need Marco, America needs Marco.''
Cantor didn't mention Rubio's chief Senate rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, by name but referred to him as "only interested in perpetuating a political life for himself rather than standing up for the people of Florida.''
The anti-Crist ribbing continued at the party gathering Saturday night, which featured a rare joint appearance by the major Republican candidates for governor, Rick Scott and Bill McCollum.
"The worst thing that happened to Charlie Crist was that they capped the well,'' said national Republican committeewoman Sharon Day, referring to the publicity the governor received after the Gulf oil spill.
With the Bush tax cuts set to expire in January and debate in Congress heating up, Rubio has been staking out his position at recent campaign events. The Obama administration backs continuing the tax breaks for families making less than $250,000 annually while ending the cuts for wealthier taxpayers to help close a looming budget deficit.
"The tax cuts don't pay for themselves, but they certainly lead to (economic) growth,'' Rubio said. "Combined with the kind of measures we've proposed to hold down spending . . . put us in the place we want to be.''
Asked how he would pay for the tax cuts, Rubio pointed to his support for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and his 12-point plan to spur economic growth. His proposals include repealing the new health care legislation, freezing nonmilitary spending and banning so-called earmarks for members' pet projects.
Rubio's campaign has mocked Crist for removing a statement from his campaign website in support of extending the tax cuts. Crist left the Republican party three months ago and has been picking up enough Democratic support to give him a narrow edge over Rubio in the polls.
Crist spokesman Danny Kanner said the governor "unequivocally'' supports continuing the tax cuts. But the governor and Rubio differ when it comes to Congress extending federal unemployment benefits.
Rubio joined his party in opposing the aid because budget cuts were not identified to offset the $34 billion cost. Unlike the Bush tax cuts, he added, unemployment benefits won't boost job numbers.
"Unemployment helps people get through a period of time, but it's not a growth program. It's not a way to grow the private sector,'' Rubio said. "Ultimately people on unemployment want a job, not another check.''
The leading Democratic candidates for the Senate, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami and Palm Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene, both back stretching unemployment benefits and ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
Rubio and liberal MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow recently engaged in some good-natured ribbing over the Bush tax cuts. Maddow contended that the cuts and the rest of Rubio's economic agenda would add $3.5 trillion to the federal deficit.
"George W. Bush's tax policies did to the deficit what the 'I only eat fried cheese' diet does to your cholesterol,'' Maddow quipped on air.
Rubio responded with an Internet ad that joked that voters can be sure his economic plan is right because "Rachel Maddow thinks it's wrong.''