SAN DIEGO — RACIAL politics, the hand grenade of American elections, has helped Republicans win recent presidential campaigns. But Democrats have an explosive weapon of their own that may be hurled in 1992 - class warfare.
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, says that class politics - pitting middle-income Americans against the rich - is one way Democrats can neutralize the race issue and get Southern whites and Northern blue-collar workers back into the party.
George Bush, raised in privilege and educated at Phillips-Andover Academy and Yale University, is a target for this kind of hard-edged politics.
The president, enveloped in foreign affairs, failed to hear the cries of unemployed Americans for months. Democrats have scored on that issue, making the president look aloof, and driving down Mr. Bush's popularity.
Such class appeals are nothing new. Political journalist David Broder noted at a forum last year that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who laid the foundation for modern-day Democratic strength, often made class appeals.
Although most of Roosevelt's programs were positive, such as social security and the New Deal, he "kept a stable of villains ... and he ran every campaign against those 'economic royalists.' That was part of [Roosevelt's] coalition-building because you can, in fact, rally people against someone," Mr. Broder says.
This year Democrats are trumpeting middle-class tax cuts, sometimes at the expense of the rich. One recent poll shows Americans favor such a position by an 81-to-14 margin - giving Democrats a chance to make a class-oriented argument.
Todd Otis, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, says the excesses building up in the economy - wealthy people making enormous gains in income while the middle class shrinks - is building inevitable pressure for change.
"At some point, the excesses become so gross, and [if Democrats] get one person able to articulate them ... the gap's going to close" between the parties, says Mr. Otis.
Republicans, particularly in the South, have used the resentment of middle-class whites against affirmative-action programs for blacks to gain strength. Analysts say class arguments based on middle-class economic problems now could begin driving whites back into alliance with blacks.