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Bush Stimulus Plan Sets Off Political Battle With Opposition Democrats - 2003-01-07

President Bush and opposition Democrats are now engaged in the first major domestic debate of 2003 how best to revitalize the lagging U.S. economy.

Mindful that a weak economy helped deny his father a second term in the White House in 1992, President Bush unveiled a tax cut stimulus plan in Chicago Tuesday aimed at boosting the sluggish U.S. economy.

"Our first challenge is to allow Americans to keep more of their money so they can spend and save and invest; [stimulate] the millions of individual decisions that support the market, that support business and help create jobs," he said.

The Bush tax cut plan includes a proposal to eliminate the income tax that investors pay on stock dividends. That is seen as politically appealing to the two thirds of voters who are now investors in the stock market.

Democrats contend the president's plan is tilted in favor of the wealthy. House Democrats have introduced their own less sweeping stimulus package that they contend would help those who earn moderate to low incomes.

"We believe that ours will have more impact in the year 2003 when the economy needs it. It will go to the people who need it. It will have an effect in the near-term, which is what we desire," said John Spratt, Democratic Congressman from South Carolina.

Both the president and opposition Democrats have a lot at stake in the economic debate. Mr. Bush and his Republican allies were not blamed for the lagging economy in the November congressional elections in which Republicans gained seats in both the House and Senate.

But Republican pollster Neil Newhouse warns that voters might not be so forgiving if the economy remains stagnant into the 2004 presidential election year:

"Whether the economy is good or bad, if it is perceived to be headed in the right direction 18 months from now, then it is really an uphill battle for the Democrats," Mr. Newhouse said. "If it is as it is right now, then it could be a competitive race. But for Republicans like myself to write off any chance of the Democrats winning, it is blasphemous, it is nuts."

The president continues to enjoy high public approval ratings, in large part because of his handling of the war on terrorism.

Pollster Neil Newhouse believes Mr. Bush heads into the 2004 campaign with a huge advantage in foreign policy and national security issues over any of his Democratic challengers.

"There is going to be a significant stature gap between W. and any of the Democratic contenders on the issues of international relations and national security," he added. "So that if the Democrats try to make that an issue, as has been suggested, I think there is enough of a stature gap there that I think it is going to play to George W.'s advantage."

Despite the president's advantage in the polls, several Democrats have recently announced plans to seek the White House next year. They include Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Vermont Governor Howard Dean and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle announced Tuesday that he will not be a candidate next year. But two other Democratic Senators could join the race soon, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida.

Democratic political strategist Doc Sweitzer agrees that the economy will be central to the Democrats' hopes of ousting President Bush in 2004. But he also says Democratic presidential candidates will have to prove that they can handle foreign policy and national security issues.

"We'll need somebody as a candidate for president who can fill the role of commander in chief. Because, for the first time since maybe 1988, that is the first qualifier to be the next president, to be commander in chief," Mr. Sweitzer said.

That challenge for the Democrats could be made even more difficult if President Bush winds up leading the nation into a war with Iraq.