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Americans call the economy the top issue of the 2008 election, and both presidential candidates agree on the target voters: the ones Gov. Sarah Palin says “do some of the hardest work in America — who grow our food, run our factories and fight our wars.”That raises a question for the general election campaign that begins in earnest this week: Can Senator John McCain prevail without offering more for those voters’ pocketbooks?
It arises from the paradox within the campaign themes Mr. McCain has laid out. He has joined Senator Barack Obama in expressing empathy for the travails of ordinary workers, and in calling for change.\n\nYet the principal elements of Mr. McCain’s economic agenda on taxes, trade, regulation and health care follow the philosophic outlines of a deeply unpopular Bush administration. In offering new, immediate economic benefits, Mr. Obama has far outbid his Republican adversary.
That hardly precludes Mr. McCain from attracting enough blue-collar votes to win in swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. He can appeal to those voters on issues of national security and cultural values, as well as by reviving traditional Republican attacks against tax-and-spend liberalism.Some veterans of that campaign doubt the Republican prescriptions will be enough for Mr. McCain.\n\n“I don’t see how he can win,” said Jan van Lohuizen, a Bush pollster in 2004, “if he doesn’t talk about the No. 1 issue in every poll and say something besides generic Republican dogma.”
The housing and financial market crises that were highlighted again this week by federal action to rescue the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have underscored a theme Democrats have emphasized throughout the Bush era: While affluent Americans have reaped the benefits of economic growth, average families have been falling behind.
Mr. Obama and his aides cite this yardstick: Adjusted for inflation, the median income of working-age households has declined by about $2,000 since 2000. Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has offered an ambitious range of proposals to arrest that decline and help average workers compete in a global economy.\n\nThose proposals include a new tax credit of $500 per worker, or $1,000 for two-worker households; a new mortgage interest credit, valued at an average of $500, for homeowners who do not itemize their tax deductions; and a college tuition subsidy of $4,000 per year for students who agree to perform community service. Mr. Obama would wipe out income taxes for older Americans earning $50,000 or less, saving some 7 million households an average of $1,400 apiece.
By comparison, Mr. McCain’s list of proposals on this front is far more modest. He would double the existing child exemption to $7,000 from $3,500, but most tax-filers would not benefit because they have no dependent children or have incomes so modest that they already do not owe income taxes. Mr. McCain, of Arizona, would also offer a summer gas-tax holiday valued at about $30 a month.
Mr. McCain hopes to appeal to working-class voters with broader arguments concerning his pledge to control spending, balance the budget and sustain the growth of exports. But Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who advised Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, calls those “curiously abstract” arguments at a time of economic anxiety.\n\nOn the economy and health care, added Don Sipple, a former Bush adviser, “The G.O.P. is absent an agenda that relates to average Americans.”\n\nMr. McCain could yet respond by supplementing his economic agenda. But for now Republicans are relying more on drawing personal contrasts between the 72-year-old Republican war hero and his comparatively inexperienced Democratic rival, who at 47 is bidding to become the first African-American president.\n\nSome elections turn on “arguments on a message about the future,” but this may not be one of them, noted Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist. “If McCain can continue to make this a race about the proven leader you know versus the unproven, self-styled idealist you don’t know, he can win.”