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With a Tax Rallying Cry, GOP Tries to Drown Out Woes

April 09, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Burdened by an unpopular war and divisions over immigration and other issues, Republicans are turning to an old standby -- taxes -- to unite the party and boost its prospects in the midterm elections.

From Washington to Sacramento, strategists say the issue can help put the GOP back on offense while energizing Republican loyalists, whose turnout is crucial to the party's November success.

"Tax issues are a fundamental divide between Republicans and Democrats," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The GOP effort to make President Bush's tax cuts permanent "is going to be a big issue in House races" nationwide, Forti said.

But some political analysts question the potency of the tax issue -- particularly among independents and swing voters -- at a time when polls suggest Americans are more concerned about the war in Iraq and healthcare costs, among other priorities.

"I don't get any sense there's some incipient tax revolt out there waiting to happen," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Pennsylvania's Franklin and Marshall College. The state is home to what may be the country's premier U.S. Senate contest, between Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.

"If anything, the race is about hundreds of millions of dollars in programs Santorum has supported for economic development," Madonna said. "It's not about tax cuts. It's about largesse for the state."

The tax issue -- or, more specifically, the prospect of higher taxes under Democrats -- was a staple of speeches when GOP activists gathered last month in Memphis, Tenn., for the party's first audition of White House hopefuls.

Since then, the message has been amplified by Bush, among others.

The president has gone beyond his standard campaign remarks on fighting terrorism to frame the midterm election as a referendum on taxes as well. "If you want the government in your pocket, vote Democrat," Bush said last month at an Indiana campaign stop. "If you want to keep more of your hard-earned money, vote Republican."

He repeated the message at a fundraiser for beleaguered U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), saying voters there would decide "whether or not they want their taxes to go up, or stay low."

In a recent radio address, Bush called on Congress to make permanent the tax cuts passed in his first term, saying failure to do so would weaken the economy and stick U.S. families "with a big tax hike that they do not expect and will not welcome."

In Iowa, site of the first 2008 presidential contest, Republicans used the tax issue to attack Democratic White House hopeful Mark R. Warner as a "tax-and-spend liberal" upon word that the former Virginia governor planned to campaign in Des Moines. "When anybody comes into the state, it's important for voters to know what they're about," said Sarah Sauber, an Iowa GOP spokeswoman.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited the rollback of an increase in "the unfair car tax" as one of his chief accomplishments as he launched the first TV ads of his reelection bid. The governor repealed the vehicle license-fee increase -- saving taxpayers $4 billion annually -- immediately after taking office in November 2003. Since then, he has resisted efforts to boost the state's income taxes.

Steve Schmidt, manager of Schwarzenegger's reelection effort, said the governor's fiscal stewardship would be a major selling point of his campaign. "The only thing standing in the way of massive tax increases for the people of California is Arnold Schwarzenegger," Schmidt said.

However, although he opposes higher taxes, Schwarzenegger has run up the state's debt and has proposed major new spending on infrastructure projects, to be financed through more borrowing and increased fees. That could muddle his message, in the same way that Republicans defending Bush's tax cuts struggle to explain the record federal deficits accrued under GOP rule in Washington.

At issue in congressional races is the fate of the large tax-rate cuts enacted in Bush's first term and scheduled to expire by 2011. Taxpayers have grown accustomed to them, Republicans say, and allowing them to lapse would amount to a huge tax increase that would choke the economy.

"The tax debate," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is "between Republican leaders who want to keep your taxes where they are or reduce them, and Democrats who want to raise your taxes and have a history of doing so."

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