ORFORD, N.H. — Take the pledge, win crucial Republican votes.
That's been a highly successful formula for GOP presidential candidates in New Hampshire for decades, and this time, former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas are counting on their no-tax pledge signatures to provide them with the Republican version of street credibility.
But their bid to be the champion of the state's vocal no-tax constituency is running into some huge problems.
One is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who won't sign the pledge even though he insists that his record proves he's a habitual tax-cutter.
The other problem is Romney and Huckabee themselves.
Huckabee boasts that he cut taxes more than 90 times during his 10 1/2 years in office, but the Club for Growth, a Washington budget watchdog group, found that sales, gasoline, grocery and other taxes all went up while he was in office.
Romney, the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 until January, wouldn't sign a no-tax pledge in 2002 when he was seeking the state office. And he raised "user fees," closed corporate loopholes and increased business costs by hundreds of millions of dollars during his four-year term.
"He did not have any broad-based tax cuts in his four years as governor," said former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, who preceded Romney in office. Cellucci, a Republican, supports Giuliani.
Giuliani isn't the only candidate not to sign the pledge — so far, neither has any Democratic presidential candidate, nor Republicans John McCain and Fred Thompson. But so far the noisiest duel over taxes has been between Romney and Giuliani, largely because they're the GOP front-runners.
Both Romney and Giuliani have talked consistently about lowering taxes, but both have records that raise questions about their fervor for the task.
When Romney took office, he inherited a $3.2 billion deficit and was able to balance the budget without a broad-based tax increase. But he did increase fees for a number of functions, including getting married and using certain public facilities, and closed a series of corporate loopholes.
"It's straightforward," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a Boston-based research group, without hesitation. "He raised corporate taxes."
Not so, countered Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "The fees in question were user-based fees, many of which hadn't been brought into line with what the administration of services was costing," he said.
The corporate tax changes bring in an estimated $400 million annually, while the user fees produce $250 million to $500 million, Widmer said.
Giuliani became New York City's mayor in 1994 and inherited a $2.4 billion budget gap. He quickly cut city jobs and spending, proposed massive tax cuts and, by all accounts, pushed a series of other cuts throughout his eight years, 23 by his count, somewhat fewer by other analyses.
The Romney campaign disputes that figure, saying that seven of the tax cuts were initiated by state officials and an eighth was a city council initiative. "The 23 number is purposefully misleading," Madden said.
Still, said the Club for Growth in an analysis of the mayor's record, "despite powerful local obstacles, Giuliani was able to significantly cut taxes."
The debate rages as the national debt continues to climb — totaling more than $9.1 trillion on Tuesday, up from $5.7 trillion when George W. Bush became president. Cutting taxes more will deepen the national debt unless federal spending is slashed equivalently. The records of Congress and presidencies under Republicans and Democrats show that spending cuts are difficult to execute because federal programs and services are popular. Spending grew more under Bush and Ronald Reagan's Republican presidencies than under Democrat Bill Clinton's, for example.
Giuliani's tax record isn't without controversy. When he left office in 2001, the city's budget shortfall was projected to climb to about $3.5 billion in the next fiscal year, bigger than when he became mayor. Former City Budget Director and Deputy Mayor Joseph Lhota, though, noted that Giuliani handed over a balanced budget to new Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he left office.
The tax-cutting community also wasn't pleased that Giuliani had said he wanted to end a 12.5 percent city income tax surcharge in fiscal 1995 and again in fiscal 1996, but it continued until 1998.
Lhota defended Giuliani's record on the surcharge, saying politics got in the way of the mayor's effort to end it.
New Hampshire Republicans study such matters closely — this is still a state with no sales or broad-based income tax, and Republicans see lower taxes as an important way of differentiating themselves from Democrats in 2008.
Not only that, say GOP loyalists, the pledge is also a crucial statement that a candidate will back up his rhetoric with his signature. Tom Thomson, a local tree farmer and son of long-ago pledge-booster Gov. Meldrim Thomson, explained why.
"I want to be able to look a politician in the eye and ask them where they stand and be able to trust them," said Thomson. "And in New Hampshire you not only have to tell us, but you have to put your name on a document."