THE question is alive and well in Illinois. It dogs Senate candidate Lynn Martin. A reporter asks it in Lawrenceville, Ill. In nearby Carmi, a voter wants to know.
Congresswoman, they ask, where do you stand on taxes?
No new taxes - the pledge that swept George Bush into the White House two years ago - is a much more difficult campaign promise to make in 1990. President Bush's recent switch on the issue has taken the issue away from most Republican candidates this year. Conservative Republicans who are sticking to the pledge, such as US Representative Martin, are under extremely close scrutiny.
If George Bush can break such promises, skeptical voters and reporters are asking, why can't you?
``Ah, the tax issue,'' Martin says, waving an imaginary cigar in Groucho Marx fashion when asked about it in her campaign van. Her public disagreement with Bush has brought her instant media attention. On the same Sunday two weeks ago, Martin appeared on CBS's ``Face the Nation'' and ABC's ``This Week with David Brinkley,'' talking about the issue.
For her race against incumbent Sen. Paul Simon, a liberal Democrat who talks openly about new taxes, her no-new-taxes pledge is a two-edged sword.
On the one hand, many voters appear to be more cynical.
Senator Simon drew strong applause last week when he told a group of Rockford, Ill., senior citizens, ``Be careful of politicians that promise you one thing before an election and do something else after.''
On the other hand, Martin's no-new-taxes stand still resonates among voters in these rolling clay hills of Democratic but conservative southern Illinois.
Charles O. (Bill) Williams, a registered Democrat here in Carmi, Ill., voted for Simon in 1984. But he won't do that again this year.
``The trouble I see with my party is that the more taxes they collect, the more taxes they spend,'' he says after attending a Martin speech in Carmi. ``No new taxes? We believe in that.''
Martin sounds a similar theme at a local Elks Club rally here.
``I do not believe that there will ever be control of spending with the same spenders that are there'' in Congress, she says. ``I will stand up and oppose the new taxes that they will shove down our throats.''
Martin and her campaign manager, Mark Schroeder, say the tax issue is helping their campaign.
``We believe it's a plus,'' Mr. Schroeder says. ``It elevates an issue that we think we are strong on.''
The stand is especially helpful in the suburbs around Chicago, where Republicans traditionally do well.
According to a poll conducted by the Martin campaign in mid-April, more people cited Illinois's high taxes than anything else as what put the state on the wrong track. Statewide, 22 percent said it was the main problem; in the suburban ring around Chicago, 34 percent cited taxes in that poll. In the two most Republican suburban counties, it was 40 percent.
For his part, Simon is not sure that he will be helped all that much by the tax issue, but he won't be hurt by it either.
``It is certainly not a minus in terms of my own candidacy,'' he says. ``But I think it's a minus for the process. It makes people more and more cynical of everybody in politics and that hurts me. It hurts everybody.''
On the campaign trail, Martin is telling voters that federal tax increases would be particularly harmful to Illinois.
``It isn't that I oppose every tax increase,'' she says. But the taxes that Bush and the Democrats are discussing would be doubly hurtful to Illinois. According to Martin, for every dollar of revenue that Illinois sends to Washington, Illinois gets only 72 cents back. That makes it 49th of the 50 states in terms of return on its federal taxes.
Thus, a new tax hike would not only burden Illinoisans further, it would mean a continued drain of wealth from the state. Shipping money to Texas
A prime beneficiary, Martin adds, would be Texas, which is receiving federal help to bail out that state's many failed savings and loan institutions.
``For this state, it would be a major transfer of wealth,'' Martin says. ``We could just Federal Express our money down to Texas easier.''
This tack complements another Martin criticism about Simon: that he is an absentee senator. (Simon, himself, used that argument on then-Sen. Charles Percy six years ago to win his election. In 1988, Simon ran for president, having to miss lots of votes in the Senate.)
It is too early to say how these populist messages will play in Illinois.
``I don't think the people relate to that,'' says Gerald Harper, the mayor of Lawrenceville, Ill. ``Property taxes are a much bigger concern.''
``Taxes are a real issue wherever you go,'' says Carl McVey, White County coroner after hearing Martin speak in Carmi. ``We want our fair share.''
One of Martin's biggest hurdles, they add, is to make herself known outside of her congressional district in Rockford, Ill.
Several political analysts doubt Martin can make her anti-tax stand work.
What Martin really needs to win the race are moderate Republicans, says Richard Day, president of his own strategic research firm in Evanston, Ill. Voters may well be swayed by other issues than taxes.
``I don't think they will punish Paul Simon for saying what George Bush is saying,'' adds David Axelrod, a Chicago-based political consultant.
``People are smarter than Lynn Martin and [her media adviser] Roger Ailes think they are. They realize that it [the federal deficit] is a problem,'' he says.
The news media is doubly skeptical about the pledge.
Martin likes to say that on the four major tax bills of the 1980s, she has voted to increase taxes only once. That vote was in her first term in Congress, on the 1982 Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, when it was promised her that for every dollar of revenue raised, three dollars of government spending would be cut. Broken spending promises
Instead, the dollar was raised and only 52 cents was cut. Martin tells voters she has learned her lesson and won't make the mistake again. ``Why not raise taxes?'' she asks an audience in Mount Carmel, Ill. Because ``you and I know that little or none of it will go to the deficit.''
Simon also voted to support that bill, she points out. Unlike Martin, he also supported the 1984 Deficit Reduction Act, which raised liquor taxes and extended other special taxes. He also opposed the tax cut of 1981 and tax reform of 1986, which cut the top tax rate for individuals - measures that Martin supported.
But a broader review of the record shows that Martin has not been consistently anti-tax.
Congress passed 12 bills that raised fees or taxes during the Reagan years, according to a Congressional Quarterly study for the Chicago Sun-Times. Simon voted for 11 of them (he missed a roll call vote for the 12th during his run for president). Martin voted for nine of those tax or fee hikes.
Moreover, her stand for no new taxes extends only through this budget year, she admitted after close questioning last week by a Chicago public television reporter.