THERE is no single number, no point on the income scale that divides voters between the "party of the rich" or the "party of the poor." But at a time when the gap between haves and have-nots in America is widening and the security of one's paycheck emerges as a central 1996 campaign theme, both Republicans and Democrats are trying to court new voters beyond their traditional constituencies.
Democrats are casting a wide net, using such issues as the minimum wage, tuition tax credits, and portable health insurance to appeal to a broader range of lower-middle-class and conservative voters. These moves have put Republicans on the defensive. Some 20 House Republicans broke ranks last week and backed a $1 hike in the minimum wage - 10 cents higher than the Democrats seek. Perhaps more telling, GOP members are shying from the Contract With America, the legislative agenda that, among other provisions, offered tax breaks to upper-income brackets.
In a year when neither side has a clear lock on the so-called swing blocs - such as blue-collar conservatives - the middle class may be more sought after than ever, and stability of the paycheck may emerge as a key to gaining political advantage.
"Both sides are reaching for new voters among the middle class - whatever that is," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington. "Bill Clinton and Bob Dole keep moving toward the middle income-wise to reach new voters: conservatives for Democrats and moderates for Republicans."
Since 1980, perhaps the most pivotal bloc of voters has been working-class conservatives.
Long a rock-solid base for Democrats, they broke from the party to side with Ronald Reagan through the 1980s, largely because they felt Democrats were more interested in the rights of minorities than in their economic security. Candidate Clinton wooed some of that bloc back in 1992, but it remains dislodged from either party. The current politics of the paycheck has much to do with this group.
So far, the state of the economy would seem to favor the Democrats. In a Gallup poll conducted earlier this month, for example, only 20 percent of those surveyed said they thought the economy was in "poor" condition, down from 48 percent at the same time in 1992. Where the public places blame for adverse conditions, however, is more interesting.
Public blames Congress
While voters tend to hold Congress - and thus Republicans who control it - responsible for controlling the economy, they tend to see President Clinton as responsible for whatever economic strength they perceive. While 67 percent of those who think the economy is in "poor" condition blame Republicans in Congress, more respondents express greater confidence in Clinton to handle the economy.
It is thus unlikely, the poll and several pundits conclude, that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. Bob Dole will be able to turn Mr. Clinton's theme of 1992 - "It's the economy, stupid!" - back on the incumbent this year.
Part of this could be because of the way Democrats have effectively countered Republican proposals in Congress. In the past several months, Clinton has co-opted Republican themes of balancing the budget and cutting taxes, but has portrayed himself and the party as defenders of the middle class by targeting tax credits to a more specific bracket of income earners and criticizing GOP proposals to slow the growth of Medicare spending.
The minimum wage may be the Democrats' most effective economic issue. Not only is it popular among a vast majority of the public, it also could be crucial to boosting voter turnout among lower-income voters, who shied away from the polls in 1994. In California, for example, Democrats and the AFL-CIO have placed an initiative on the fall ballot to raise the state's minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $5.75 an hour over two years. If that draws the working class to the polls, they hope, Democrats will benefit. The party holds similar hopes at the national level.
So far, however, Republicans have only stammered for a response to the issue.
"Their response to the minimum wage shows a degree of confusion," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "There are solid arguments they can be making [against raising the wage], but haven't."
Professor Pitney says it will interesting to watch whether Republicans counter the wage fight with a new pitch for economic renewal in poor urban areas - the "enterprise zones" approach championed by former Reagan Housing Secretary Jack Kemp. Such a move - including a push for inner city tax incentives or privatization of public housing - would indicate Republicans are reaching downward.
Another way the Republicans may try to reach downward across a broad range of middle-class voters is to return to their warnings about entitlements. Medicare and Social Security, the two most important entitlement programs to the middle class, are on a path toward bankruptcy in opening decades of the next century. GOP lawmakers worked those issues to their favor last summer, but lost the edge when Democrats charged that Republicans were slowing the growth of Medicare to pay for tax cuts to the wealthy.