Bush as traveling salesman

Mike Neugebauer is struggling to balance his checkbook these days. The website designer in Omaha, Neb., who's got an 18-month-old child at home, has been watching his monthly heating bill rise like a bad temper: from $125 a year ago to about $350 today.

So it's just fine with him if President Bush wants to put some money - any money - back in his pocket through a broad tax cut.

Mr. Neugebauer represents a slice of America that Mr. Bush is hoping to reach this week as he romps across the country trying to build public support for his budget and tax-cut plan.

After five weeks of doing one-on-one lobbying inside the Beltway, the president is now trying to generate momentum among the masses with the equivalent of a chicken-in-every pot appeal. He has at least some reason to be optimistic.

Across the country, nervousness is growing about the state of the US economy. At the same time, many people, like Neugebauer, are concerned about their kitchen-table economics.

The impact of high energy bills does have "a certain resonance," says California pollster Mark DiCamillo.

On the hustings, amid jumbo American flags and trumpeting bands, Bush pledges to do nearly everything that's popular: cut taxes, retire debt, boost spending on education and the military, save Social Security, and conserve for a rainy day.

His message seems to be having appeal, at least in the abstract. A Gallup poll found 71 percent of people who watched the president's speech Tuesday night, for example, think he has the same priorities as they do for the nation.

"Everybody wants a tax cut, everybody wants it to be fair, everybody wants reduction of debt, and everybody wants vital programs funded," says Alan Hoffenbloom, a GOP strategist in Los Angeles. And Bush, he says, is giving it to them.

Balloons and bunting in Omaha

Here in Omaha, on one stop of a two-day heartland swing, Bush prodded and cajoled a crowd of 2,000 at the downtown civic center. They cheered enthusiastically at his mentions of education funding and local control of schools, and especially at this talk of tax cuts.

It's a self-selecting group, to be sure, that has come here on a weekday morning - mostly people who already support Bush and his plan. "As long as there's not a big spending spree, I think he can do it all," says John Leddy, another Web designer, who's sporting a coat and tie for his trip to see the president.

In fact, Mr. Leddy implicitly trusts Bush to manage the nation's finances. "That's one advantage of having the first guy with an MBA degree in the White House," he says. "There are some skills," he adds referring to other Oval Office occupants, "that attorneys just don't have."

Yet there is another message echoing across the land on the great tax debate - this one from the Democrats. They're putting together a more modest tax-cut proposal, even as they continue to criticize Bush's plan for not adding up. They argue, among other things, that his tax cut may cost $2.2 trillion, rather than $1.6 trillion.

While many Americans can't follow all the numbers, they do have some suspicions about the overall math.

"So far the public sees the pros and the cons - and they're somewhere in between," says Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "They aren't saying, 'Don't give us that tax cut - it's not worth it,' but some people still don't think it all adds up."

Indeed, a Reuters/Zogby poll released yesterday shows that 38 percent of Americans back Bush's proposal for a $1.6 trillion cut, while 40 percent prefer the Democrats' smaller package.

White House officials know they have a lot of selling to do. Senior Bush adviser Karen Hughes says their biggest task is convincing Americans that the president's arithmetic makes sense.

"People have been led to believe - and part of it was because President Clinton had the presidential microphone - that you can't have tax cuts and debt reduction," she says. "But it turns out that with a $5.6 trillion surplus you can in fact have both debt reduction and tax relief and fund spending priorities."

Ms. Hughes may be convinced, but other Washington power players aren't. That's why Bush is also using campaign stops this week to seek support from members of Congress, especially senators, who may determine the fate of his plan.

Lobbying in Little Rock

In Little Rock, he clearly aimed to convince Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat who's a potential convert to his plan. And he unabashedly used the Omaha event - and its convention hall full of enthusiasts - to lobby Nebraska Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, another possible backer.

As he introduced Senator Nelson and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, he ribbed, "I know I'm going to be able to count on them in the pinch. I know when it comes to doing the right thing, they'll listen to the people of Nebraska." The crowd roared.

Certainly if Bush is to really succeed in converting members of Congress, he's got to generate excitement out in the heartland.

"The question is: Can he generate those cards and letters and e-mails and calls - can he whip up support?" asks Mr. Hoffenbloom.

With the speech and cross-country campaign, says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli, "He's gotten up a very big head of steam."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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