Republican candidates in the U.S. presidential race debated economic policy and the war in Iraq during a televised debate late Thursday in the southern state of Florida. VOA's Brian Wagner reports the candidates are striving for a lead ahead of the state's primary Tuesday.

As the primary season continues, Republican presidential candidates are focusing on their individual strengths to help win voters away from their rivals.

Experts say there is still no clear leader in the race, with Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney battling for the top spot, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in third.

The nation's economic problems overshadowed the debate at Florida Atlantic University on Thursday and prompted many candidates to talk about their proposals to stimulate the U.S. economy. The threat of recession and housing sector problems are chief concerns for voters in Florida, who vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries on Tuesday.

Romney said his experience as a former governor and corporate executive helps him understand what is needed to raise employment in the nation.

"I'll make sure we create more good jobs for this nation and one way to do that is by holding down taxes, and making those tax cuts permanent," said Romney.

McCain agreed that tax cuts are needed to encourage U.S. companies to invest more at home and create jobs. But he added that too much government spending is a major cause of the nation's economic troubles.

"We let it [spending] get out of control," said McCain. "And the fact is if we had had the spending restraints I proposed, we would be talking about more tax cuts today."

Huckabee offered details about his support for a controversial plan to abolish the nation's income tax system, and create a nationwide sales tax. He said adopting the so-called "fair tax" would help millions of low-income families and encourage new economic activity.

"It would be a dramatic difference if the taxpayers go to choose the taxes, which they would under the fair tax," said Huckabee.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said the rise of foreign economies, especially China, has created new challenges for the U.S. economy. But he said China also poses great opportunities.

"I see 20 or 30 million people coming out of poverty in China every year," said Guiliani. "To me, that's 20 or 30 million more customers for the United States."

Congressman Ron Paul said his approach to cut government spending involves sharply reducing the nation's military and civilian presence around the world. He also criticized the war in Iraq as a major drain on the nation.

"It was not worth it," said Paul. "And it is a sad story because we started the war and we should never be a country that starts war needlessly."

Organizers say a debate on Sunday for Democratic presidential candidates is unlikely because some candidates have not committed. This week, Democrats have been campaigning in South Carolina ahead of a primary vote on Saturday.