Republican hopefuls target middle-class insecurity as economy improves – Reuters


NASHUA, April 19 (Reuters) – Facing a recovering economy and
a tumbling jobless rate, Republican presidential candidates
honing their economic message are trying tap into a lingering
sense of insecurity among Americans seven years after the global
financial crisis.

And some are striking a sympathetic tone with lower-income
workers in a way that contrasts with four years ago when Mitt
Romney struggled to overcome perceptions that he was largely the
candidate of the wealthiest Americans. Then, Republican nominee
Romney had the luxury of being able to hammer President Barack
Obama with an unemployment rate of more than 8 percent.

Now, with the jobless rate at 5.5 percent, the 18 Republican
White House hopefuls who gathered this weekend in the key early
primary state of New Hampshire faced the challenge of arguing
the country needs new economic stewardship even as the worst of
the downtown has passed.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said that simply blasting
Obama’s economic policies would not suffice. “We will not win if
we just complain about how bad things are,” he told a crowd at a
hotel ballroom.

Bush, who has yet to formally announce his candidacy, tried
to build a message around moving the economy to a firmer
standing, arguing that many Americans still feel financially
insecure. Economic growth, he said, needs to be at a rate “where
people no longer believe that the end is near, that their
children will have more opportunities than they have, that
they’re willing to take risks again.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz said Bush and other
contenders are taking the right tack.

“We do not have the full-time jobs we once had. We do not
have the upwardly mobile economy that we once had,” Luntz told
Reuters. “The public is still afraid that we are one bump in the
road away from a serious recession.”

The U.S. economy grew by 2.4 percent last year, the largest
increase since the depths of the recession in 2010. Bush would
like to see the economy hum at closer to 4 percent and
frequently points out that the rate of new business formation
has dropped steadily since the 1980s and that business deaths
now eclipse starts.

MIDDLE-CLASS UNCERTAINTY

Even as the economy steadily added jobs, wages have remained
flat. Earnings grew just 1.7 percent in 2014, according to U.S.
government data, well below the 3.5 percent that economists say
is needed to reap the benefits of an expanded economy.

The public mood remains sour. Sixty percent of Americans in
March said the economy was on the wrong track, according to
Reuters/IPSOS polling data, although that was an improvement
from 71 percent in May 2014.

With New Hampshire’s primary still nine months away, the
weekend provided an early glimpse at economic ideas that have
had little chance to be fully formed. Most of the campaigns have
yet to bring on extensive policy staffs.

But there is some urgency: In the first days of her
candidacy last week, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton
made it clear that she will make the plight of the middle class
central to her campaign.

Some Republicans at the gathering tried to address concern
about rising income inequality and the struggles of the nation’s
middle class to keep pace with the cost of living.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry contended that it was unfair
that “large corporations don’t pay taxes but single moms working
two jobs do.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said millions of Americans no
longer believe they can achieve financial success.

“They’re living paycheck to paycheck. They have what was a
great job 10 years ago, but now it doesn’t go far enough,” he
said. “They literally live one unexpected expense away from
disaster.”

Rubio, who announced his run for the White House earlier
this month, went the furthest in trying to reach voters who
aren’t benefiting from the recovery. He talked of the importance
of vocational training programs and suggested that college isn’t
the right path for all students, especially given the enormous
debt load than many end up carrying.

He invoked images of less affluent Americans: Not only his
father, who worked for years as a bartender, but a person using
free Wi-Fi at a cafe to launch a business, or another taking two
buses to get to a job. Rubio has proposed a tax plan that he
says would make it easier for those of modest means to improve
their lives, “so a receptionist making $9 an hour can become a
paralegal making $60,000 a year.”

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has proposed a federal flat
tax rate and creating “economic freedom” zones for distressed
areas such as Detroit and Appalachia, said Republicans had to do
more to reach working-class voters.

“If you want to win elections, you’ve got to get the people
who work for the people who own businesses,” he told the crowd.

(Editing by Stuart Grudgings)