Bush works overtime to win blue collar votes

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The Independent US

Striving to make up the ground he has recently lost to Vice-President Al Gore, George W. Bush set off yesterday on a six-day, nine-state, 12-city tour designed to counter three persistent criticisms of his campaign: that he is weak on issues, insufficiently focused on women voters and taking too leisurely an approach to campaigning.

Striving to make up the ground he has recently lost to Vice-President Al Gore, George W. Bush set off yesterday on a six-day, nine-state, 12-city tour designed to counter three persistent criticisms of his campaign: that he is weak on issues, insufficiently focused on women voters and taking too leisurely an approach to campaigning.

His route, from Arkansas through Illinois and Pennsylvania to Florida, takes him through a series of "battleground" states that had beenseen as his to lose but now seem to be inclining towards Mr Gore. This week Mr Bush will also be campaigning on Saturday; he usually takes the weekend off.

Upping the pace, however, is the least of the adjustments he is making in his quest for the White House. The most telling is his decision, trumpeted in advance by his advisers, to challenge Mr Gore for the "middle-class" vote. The theme of this week is a "Blueprint for the Middle Class", addressing such concerns as healthcare costs, pensions, income tax and the family.

"Middle class" - as defined in the supposedly classless United States - is not at all the same as it is understood in Britain. It is far further down the status and income scale, taking in junior teachers and nurses but also small businesspeople and groups that in Europe would be regarded as "blue-collar". In the US, middle class means middle income, with a household income of between $30-60,000, and while this allows for an acceptable standard of living, it leaves little to spare.

When Mr Gore shifted his campaign sharply - and unexpectedly - to the left at the Democratic Party convention last month, it was partly in recognition that at least some "middle-class" votes could be his for the asking. While those on middle incomes are traditionally as likely to vote Republican - as they associate government with inefficiency and hand-outs to those less deserving than themselves - as Democrat, this year they could find more to please them in Mr Gore's programme.

The United States may be experiencing an unprecedented economic boom, but the benefits have accrued far more to those already comfortably off: those in the middle- and lower-income groups have generally sustained their earning power, if at all, by working more hours. If they have a stake in the stockmarket, it is not enough to feel much better off than before.

But they have also seen costs for the things they need: petrol, healthcare - and especially medicines - rise, while health insurance benefits and community services have declined.

Mr Gore's assurances on prescription costs, insurance safeguards and tax-funded services have struck a chord in a way that Mr Bush's pledge of across-the-board tax cuts have not, at least as yet. So has the Vice-President's vow to "fight for you" against "big oil" and big corporations generally. And while Mr Gore's nomination of the devout Joe Lieberman as his running mate has enhanced his appeal to the many "middle-class" parents concerned about "values", Mr Bush's choice of Dick Cheney - like Mr Bush, an oil millionaire - threatens to foster lower-income resentment.

When Mr Gore moved to the left, the switch was scorned by the Bush campaign as a revival of class warfare that would never catch on. Even some Democrats saw the attention to the "middle class" as unwise for a candidate seeking to build on the economic success of "New Democrat" Bill Clinton. Mr Gore's surge in the polls, and Mr Bush's new focus on the same group of voters are the surest signs yet that the criticism was misplaced and that the votes of middle-income Middle America really are up for grabs.

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