Parties Vie for Hearts and Minds Of Voters, but is anyone noticing?

Disagreement on what public wants is strong, but most concur big government is a problem

THE average American - especially one who might be inclined to vote in two years - should feel flattered.

The president of the United States and the new Republican leadership of the next Congress are locked in pitched battle for the hearts and minds of middle America. Proposals to cut taxes and slash federal programs are flying thick and fast.

In the latest salvo, President Clinton on Dec. 19 outlined $24 billion in proposed federal spending cuts over five years to help pay for the $60 billion in middle-class tax cuts he outlined last week. The biggest cuts would come from the departments of Energy and Transportation, by eliminating or consolidating programs and selling off some assets.

Clinton would also save $52 billion by extending beyond 1998 a freeze in federal discretionary spending. The leftover savings, $16 billion, would go for deficit reduction, he says.

Will the American public be impressed? It's too soon to say, but one recent poll provides a sobering glimpse for national politicians into how little the typical American knows about goings-on in Washington. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, most Americans say they don't know enough about Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich - the new Big Man on Campus who is ubiquitously in the media - to have an opinion of him.

About three-quarters of those polled said they didn't know anything about the Contract With America, the Republicans' 10-point plan for the country's future, viewed by some as playing a key role in the GOP's election landslide last month. (Now for sale in paperback, Republicans suggest one as a $10 stocking stuffer.)

It may be too cynical to ascribe all the latest wrangling over tax and spending cuts to jockeying for votes in an election still nearly two years away. But Clinton's pitch to the middle class has an obvious political ring to it. It's the middle class that votes and it was middle-class voters who dumped their Democratic members of Congress in droves.

The question is, what is the middle class really looking for?

``I don't know what they want,'' says Paul Light, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. ``Public opinion surveys show they want everything and nothing. They want the deficit to go down and spending on things they care about to go up.''

Ed Miller, an analyst with Luntz Research, the polling firm that worked with Mr. Gingrich in formulating the Contract with America, says the Clinton administration has it wrong.

``People don't want government reinvented,'' he says, ``they want it reduced.''

``The deficit is not as big an issue as it was two years ago,'' he continues. ``Now government spending and waste are the No. 1 problem. People don't think government works for them.''

Mr. Miller says the election represented a public rejection of ``bringing home the bacon'' and that voters now believe that federal projects in their congressional district are symbolic of needless federal spending in all districts. Otherwise, he says, why would the voters have unseated so many powerful members of Congress, including the speaker of the House himself?

Geoffrey Garin, a democratic pollster, says the whole battle over taxes and spending has been misinterpreted. ``This is not a battle necessarily about tax cuts. It's about being on the side of the middle class,'' says Mr. Garin.

The middle class would like tax relief, probably more than either party is willing to give them, he says.

``People want to feel secure economically and have some opportunity,'' he says. ``The Republican formula is appealing because if government can't help, it will get out of (peoples') pockets. Clinton's formula is not so much anti-government but helping the middle class get ahead.''

Overall, though, Garin says, voters are more focused on their own economic situation than on the government's.

Professor Light in Minnesota agrees: ``Here in the heartland, we're struggling to keep schools going. The Washington scene seems irrelevant. It's Disneyland East.''

He likes the idea of getting rid of the marriage penalty in taxes, for example, but ``it's not going to solve crime and schools.''

Further, he adds, Americans will be looking at what happens to their total tax burden, not just federal taxes. A devolving of federal programs to the states means greater spending there, and as states cut spending to keep their budgets balanced, spending burdens are passed along to local governments. That translates into higher property taxes and other local assessments, something the middle class in particular feels in its bottom line.

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