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Inside Politics

Dems battle over middle class taxes

Sen. John Kerry appears on NBC's
Sen. John Kerry appears on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Democratic Party
George W. Bush

(CNN) -- With eight days to go before the Iowa caucuses, middle class tax cuts were at the center of debate Sunday among Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- looking to gain ground on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri -- emphasized their plans to create tax cuts for middle income Americans.

Dean, who leads in numerous polls of Iowa voters, said he'll balance the federal budget and enact changes, including payroll tax cuts, that will bring financial relief to middle class families in other ways. Gephardt, a close second, said guaranteeing health care for everyone will be his priority.

Speaking on Sunday television talk shows, each of the four also claimed to be the only one who can defeat President Bush.

Two other candidates, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, are not campaigning in Iowa. They're focusing on New Hampshire, which will hold the nation's first primary on January 27.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, and New York civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton -- who place last in polls nationwide -- are not campaigning heavily in either state.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fisher told CNN the race in Iowa is wide open. "There is no precedent for this. The closest would be 1988, when we had seven candidates," he said.

"But this is such a wide-open field, and there are so many undecided caucus-goers and so many 'soft supporters' -- people that might be convinced to change their minds."

Fisher said he expects "very high turnout" and a "huge surprise" in the results, "but I don't know what it is yet."

Edwards, on ABC's "This Week," complained Dean and Gephardt are "taking away the tax cuts that Democrats helped fight for to help the middle class families.

"Not only are they raising taxes on the middle class, they're not doing anything about the next step," Edwards said. "We should be going the next step and actually having very targeted tax cuts that strengthen the financial condition of the middle class."

Gephardt and Dean denied their plans would place more of a financial burden on the middle class. Dean said last week that later in the primary season he will present a more specific tax plan that will show clear help for the middle class.

"Here we go again, you know, politicians coming in and saying, after they figure out there's some political problem with their position, changing their position," said Edwards. "This is exactly the kind of political doublespeak that damages our credibility."

Kerry, also on ABC, insisted his frequent talk about his competitors' tax plans is not negative campaigning. "If Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt want to raise taxes on middle class Americans and I don't, that's a different policy," the Massachusetts senator said.

But Gephardt said: "At every meeting I ask people whether they'd rather have the Bush tax cut or health care that can never be taken away. It's unanimous -- people worry about health care."

And Dean told ABC, "We're going to get rid of all the Bush tax cuts, but we're going to replace it with middle class tax fairness, which is going to be aimed at the payroll tax." He said he has not yet given an exact figure for his proposed payroll tax cut because "you've got to balance the budget first."

"I'm the only one that's ever balanced a budget," he added.

Clark has promised middle class tax cuts as well. Lieberman, on "Fox News Sunday," lobbed criticism at the former NATO military chief, who is in second place in several polls nationwide.

"Wes Clark put forward a middle class tax plan, but it only helps a quarter of middle class families, none without minor children at home," Lieberman said. "And mine helps 98 percent of the middle class."

While the disagreements over economic plans separated them, the candidates were united in their harsh criticism of President Bush -- over both his international and domestic policies. And all sought to tackle Dean for his lack of experience with international affairs.

"It is going to be very difficult for a person, in the post-September 11 world, who has no foreign policy experience, no national security experience, no military experience, very difficult to stand up against a wartime president and convince America that that person has the ability to make our country safe," Kerry told NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I just don't think people are going to leave the horse they're on, which at least has four years of experience, even though he's done a terrible job in my view, for someone who does not have experience," Gephardt told CBS's "Face the Nation."

"That's what they said about Bill Clinton," Dean responded on ABC. "That's what they said about Jimmy Carter. That's what they said about George Bush. Now, George Bush, maybe it was true."

Dean also restated his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which most of the congressional Democrats now seeking the presidency voted to authorize.

"All those Washington politicians voted for the war, with the exception of Dennis Kucinich," Dean said. "I didn't," he said, noting that he supported previous wars. "The president did not make the case, and I was the only one that figured that out."

Looking ahead to the last days of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, he said, "We're doing everything we can to get the vote out -- and that's what it is, especially in Iowa. Iowa is about knocking on doors, talking to people and asking them to support you."

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