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On Capitol Hill, a focus on the middle class

Democrats tackle issues from college tuition to healthcare.

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"For Democrats, the first inclination in the past was to focus more on the disadvantaged and working class. Now, there's a growing recognition that the nature of the electorate is such that you want to broaden that identification," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, notes that Mr. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry by 22 points among middle-class voters (with household incomes between $30,000 and $75,000). "The income level at which a white voter was more likely to pull the lever for a Republican than a Democrat was $23,700 – only slightly more than poverty level for a family of four," he wrote in his 2007 book, "Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time."

"We must broaden our message to address the needs of the middle class, whatever the ethnicity or background of its members," he writes in his book.

On the House side, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois, who formerly chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, notes that 16 of the 30 districts that Democrats picked up in 2006 elections were centered in the suburbs. "The election showed that the economic anxiety that has existed for years on the shop floor is now being felt by an increasing number of American workers right outside the corporate suite," he said in a Jan. 14 address.

His proposal, dubbed "New Deal for the New Economy," addresses four issues that "fundamentally impact the American family's bottom line: healthcare, energy, savings, and education," he said. "The first party that puts a human face on globalization, crafts a plan that addresses the American people's economic concerns, and prepares our nation for the new economy will control Washington for years, if not decades," he said.

Meanwhile, families that earn enough to file federal income taxes will receive a short-term boost from the US government. The first tax rebates from the bipartisan $168 billion economic stimulus bill will be sent out on Monday. Both Republicans and Democrats are claiming credit for checks expected to reach some 130 million families in the next four months. But Democrats are already urging passage of a second stimulus bill, including extended unemployment insurance. Republicans say Congress should wait to see the impact of the first stimulus plan.

GOP leaders charge that Democrats new outreach to the middle class comes at a price: a significant increase in taxes. "They're offering voters a big prize without telling them what's behind the curtain," says Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "A repeal of the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 would result in the largest tax hike in American history. Voters will feel it in their wallets when that money is no longer there."