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Inside Politics

A new front in the presidential campaign

Watch Carlos Watson Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CNN's Paula Zahn Now and on Fridays at 5 p.m. ET on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports.
America Votes 2004
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry

This week in The Inside Edge, I tell you why Congress won't be passing laws on gay marriage or flag burning this fall but why they might get a tax bill through.

I also define four wedge issues Kerry will use to win over undecided voters.

All talk, no laws

While the presidential campaign has become increasingly intense on the television and radio, in party conventions and soon in debates, yet another powerful front in the campaign will emerge this fall.

Next month, the September session of Congress will become a featured battleground in the fall campaign. In particular, President Bush and the Republicans will use the brief legislative session to highlight what they see as important issues that separate them from Democrats: gay marriage, flag burning and tax cuts to name a few.

There is virtually no chance that any laws will be written about the issues of gay marriage or flag burning during the short session. But by raising them in Congress, the GOP can bring new attention to the issues and therefore perhaps make them more central to the fall debate.

The tax issue - Reagan vs. Clinton

On the other hand, a "middle class" tax cut package is likely to pass this fall. The White House could have passed a bipartisan tax cut package earlier this summer.

The White House and congressional leaders had overcome both Republican and Democratic objections to work out a two-year extension of three of the middle class tax cuts originally passed in 2001 that are set to expire this year -- the child tax credit, marriage penalty provisions and the 10 percent bracket.

But at the last moment, the White House scuttled the compromise and opted to re-raise the tax issue in September for two reasons -- one policy-related and one political.

From a policy standpoint, Bush has repeatedly said that he sees tax cuts as a way to keep money in the hands of the rightful earners and stimulate the economy at the same time.

Raising the tax issue later allowed the White House more leverage to get a five-year extension instead of a two-year extension of the $20 billion in annual tax cuts.

From a political standpoint, the White House hopes to build a lead on John Kerry when it comes to taxes. Currently, the two are tied in terms of whom voters trust on the issue -- 48 percent to 47 percent in the latest CNN/Gallup poll of likely voters.

If the White House succeeds in using a congressional debate to gain a perception advantage on the tax issue, the GOP could return to its Reagan-era dominance on the tax issue and leave the Democrats behind, especially in key anti-tax battleground states like Arizona, New Hampshire and Florida.

On the other hand, if Kerry can hold his own or even gain a lead on the tax issue by pointing to his own plan -- cut taxes for 98 percent of Americans and raise taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent -- as a fairer and more effective one that would actually help reduce the record budget deficit, then the approach of Bill Clinton (king of the "middle class tax cut" along with deficit reduction) will have triumphed again.

Reagan or Clinton? Which historic approach will voters lean toward? The decision could substantially affect not only the race for the White House, but congressional races as well.

Issues to divide and conquer

Over the last 40 years, the GOP has been very successful at finding "hot issues" -- also called wedge issues -- to reach into the Democrats' base and peel away voters.

It began with race-related civil rights issues in the 1960s, extended to law and order, affirmative action, busing and welfare reform in the 1970s, and included gun rights, religious rights, the death penalty and sometimes abortion during the 1980s.

From Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968 to 1992, the GOP won the White House five out of six times, frequently attracting white Democratic voters, especially men, using these issues.

During the 1990s, Clinton -- with the help of Ross Perot and a bad economy -- managed to neutralize some of these issues including welfare, gun rights and the death penalty. But Clinton never developed a set of his own truly hot issues -- and indeed never won more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Kerry, on the other hand, may actually have developed a series of winning hot issues. During his speech at the Democratic convention last month, he raised four possible "hot issues" including: outsourcing, Saudi Arabia, Social Security (an old Democratic standby) and "Enron tax breaks."

If Kerry ultimately wins the White House, it will be in no small part because he did what even Clinton could never do -- win over large numbers of frequent Republican voters using a series of hot issues.

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