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Candidates' fault lines on issues emerge

From Iraq to abortion, the parties' stands in the 2008 race are sharp. As change agents, the edge may go to Democrats.

June 11, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

Close the prison at Guantanamo, or double its size? Raise or lower taxes? Let the free market or the federal government mend the healthcare system?

With months still to go before the presidential primaries, the rough contours of the 2008 general election are already taking shape as Democrats and Republicans divide over those issues, Iraq and others. Come next year, voters could face choices similar to those in the polarized 2004 campaign.

"The differences among us are minor," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said in a Democratic presidential debate June 3. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don't want anybody in America to be confused."

Clinton was talking about the war in Iraq and trying to sidestep an assault from party rivals. But she could just as well have been discussing the partisan divide over letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the military (Democrats say yes) or whether America should establish English as its official language (Democrats say no).

For now, candidates on both sides are mainly focused on winning their parties' nominations. Meanwhile, in their campaign appearances and in five nationally televised debates, the leading contenders have begun staking a series of bright-line positions the eventual nominees will probably carry into the fall campaign.

The current political landscape seems to favor Democrats. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center after last week's back-to-back New Hampshire debates found most Americans closer to Democrats' support for raising taxes, putting more tax dollars into healthcare, pulling out of Iraq and allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

"Democrats' great advantage is they represent change," said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Center. "We're in an environment in which the public is favoring change and not continuity."

Still, Kohut and others said, it is impossible to know whether Democrats will retain that edge all the way to November 2008.

"The issue agenda, at least right now, tilts pretty heavily against Republicans," GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio said. "That doesn't mean the race will be about the issue agenda. The race could be about character. The race could be about leadership. The race could be about a whole host of things, not necessarily the specifics of healthcare or taxes or education."

Some issues, though, go to the core of each party's beliefs, giving voters a distinct choice. Abortion and taxes, both an important part of the primary campaign, are two.

Democrats talk of the need to keep abortion legal and ensure that women make their own healthcare choices, not "the government or ... some men sitting on the United States Supreme Court," as former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina put it when Democrats held a debate in April. The major Republican candidates, with the notable exception of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, would like to reverse the high court decision legalizing abortion.

On taxes, all the leading Democrats would restore the higher rates paid by upper-income Americans before President Bush took office. In addition, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut has proposed a carbon tax to fight global warming.

Republicans, by contrast, emphasize spending cuts; some advocate lowering taxes even more. "I'd like middle-income Americans to be able to save their money and not have to pay any tax at all on interest, dividends or capital gains," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said at the GOP debate last month in Simi Valley. (Former Sen. Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, campaigning from the sidelines as he prepares to enter the Republican race, mainly echoes other top-tier candidates.)

The split over healthcare also reflects broad philosophical differences.

Generally, Democrats favor a bigger role for government in the nation's healthcare system, and Republicans advocate free-market steps toward covering the estimated 45 million people who lack insurance.

Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) would roll back the Bush tax cuts for upper-income Americans -- those making more than $200,000 a year under Edwards' plan and $250,000 a year under Obama's proposal -- to pay for expanded healthcare.

"I believe that unless we have a law requiring that every man, woman and child in America be covered, we're going to have millions of people who aren't covered," Edwards said at last week's New Hampshire debate. (Clinton, whose healthcare overhaul plan collapsed during her husband's presidency, has yet to unveil a comprehensive proposal.)

The leading Republicans reject that approach. Giuliani proposed giving Americans a tax deduction that would encourage them to buy whatever insurance they like, as they do for their homes or automobiles. "What the Democrats suggested on this stage two nights ago was socialized medicine," he said.

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