Clinton woos middle classes

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With his $60bn (£39bn) tax package of tax cuts for middle income earners, President Bill Clinton has fired his first salvo of the 1996 election campaign - a naked pitch to regain the support of a category of voters essential for any hope of a second termin the White House.

From friend and foe alike, yesterday's reviews for the prime-time address from the Oval Office were on balance favourable. Democrats of every hue are relieved that Mr Clinton has finally reasserted himself after last month's electoral debacle, when middle-class voters by the million defected to the Republican banner.

Gloating Republicans, meanwhile, could find little reason to to quarrel with ideas that are another milestone on the President's forced march towards the political right. "He's now joining in with Republicans," Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the party's second ranking Senator, said yesterday, calling the measures "a small step in the right direction."

Even the President's dwindling band of supporters acknowledged that, at best, the speech was only a first toehold on the climb out of the political abyss. One reason is that Mr Clinton's proposals are one of four tax-cutting schemes on the table, two from the Democrats and two from the Republicans. Whatever legislation emerges from the incoming Republican Congress is unlikely to bear great resemblance to his ideas. What credit is to be claimed may well go to the Republicans.

Second, and more important, so battered is Mr Clinton's reputation that a single 10-minute speech - even one as compact and direct as Thursday evening's - cannot put things right. Indeed if, as has happened frequently with this President, trenchant wordsare followed by feeble deeds, it could even rebound against him, fuelling new charges of waffle and inconstancy.

The tax cuts, presented as a "Middle Class Bill of Rights," comprise a $500 tax credit a child for families earning up to $75,000 a year, deductions for university fees of up to $10,000 a family, and tax exemptions for individual retirement, or savings, accounts.

Promising a "leaner, not a meaner Government," Mr Clinton spoke of "deep budget cuts that hurt programmes not people". As outlined by officials yesterday, sections of three major departments - Energy, Transportation and Housing - will be scrapped or privatised, saving $24bn. A further $52 bn will be saved by extending a "non-essential spending" freeze.

White House claims yesterday that the tax package did not contradict the administration's long-term deficit reduction plans. Many independent economists, however, argued that the tax breaks are too small to make much difference to individuals, but add upto a stimulus that the booming US economy does not need.

But on Thursday what mattered was less the measures than a broader message: that Mr Clinton was returning to the centrist "New Democrat" themes which won him the election in 1992. His must now relaunch his Presidency in a political debate dominated by Republicans.

The first woman to be White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, 33, resigned yesterday. She was hampered by a lack of authority and access. Favourite to replace her is Mike McCurry, chief spokesman for Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State.