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Why Pocketbook Issues Captivate Washington

Both parties seize on gas tax, minimum wage, beef in election year

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It's springtime in an election year, and Washington's fancy has turned to pocketbook issues.

Individual economic items - the gas tax, the minimum wage, pensions, even the price ranchers get for beef - have supplanted the overall budget as the fiscal focus of Congress and the White House, at least for now. One major reason: Presidential candidates who convince voters they'll make them better off gain a powerful electoral advantage. "It's the economy, stupid," was Bill Clinton's tag line in 1992, after all.

As an incumbent, President Clinton will likely need a more subtle economic message. So far the White House seems to have settled on: "Things are going great - but I feel your job anxiety."

Presumed GOP nominee Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, meanwhile, is struggling to find a way to take the fiscal offensive. His effort to reduce the gas tax has scored him some points, but many experts feel that the Senate majority leader has yet to find a way to articulate voter worries about their living standards.

"The economic issue has been tough for him," says Alan Heslop, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

The Democratic effort to raise the minimum wage by 90 cents an hour might be judged the first shot in Washington's current micro-economic battle. Although such a hike has been a professed policy goal of the administration for years, neither the White House nor its congressional allies pushed the issue hard - until the last few weeks.

The Senate schedule has been thrown into turmoil as Senate minority leader Thomas Daschle gleefully tries to attach the widely popular minimum-wage change to every piece of pending legislation in sight. Nor is this the last such guerrilla attack planned. Once a minimum-wage vote occurs, as now seems likely, Democrats will likely start to promote legislation that would increase the portability of worker pensions.

Against this background the White House has been honing its overall economic position. On the one hand, administration officials eagerly try to claim credit for the overall general health of the economy. The deficit, unemployment, and inflation are down, while job growth and the gross domestic product are predicted to continue up. On the other hand, many Americans appear to feel left out of this general prosperity. Polls show widespread worries about job loss and stagnant wages.

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