WASHINGTON -- Republicans are losing their long-held grip on the often powerful issue of taxes, making it that much harder for President Bush to catch Bill Clinton.
Mr. Bush appears not to be swaying many voters by pledging to cut taxes and by attacking Mr. Clinton as a proponent of higher taxes -- tactics that have helped Republicans win five of the past six presidential elections.
Polls, including a USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey released yesterday, reveal a stunning change in public attitude toward a Democratic presidential candidate: More voters believe Mr. Clinton would handle taxes better than Mr. Bush, who lost credibility on the issue with many voters by breaking his 1988 vow not to raise taxes.
Opinion surveys also show that voters care less this year about tax cuts than about the economy in general and the size of the deficit, which would grow if tax revenues were to decrease.
"The tax issues, the promise of tax relief or tax cutting, aren't as strong as they were in the '80s," says GOP pollster Vince Breglio, citing voters' perceptions that the deficit is a factor "causing the recession to drag on and on."
Even Republicans aren't enthusiastic about tax cuts. A Gallup Poll done just before the GOP convention in mid-August found that only 34 percent of Republicans favored cuts, compared with 38 percent of Democrats. Fifty-four percent of all voters were opposed.
Most Americans think that Mr. Bush's talk of a cut is "just politics" and that taxes will go up no matter who is elected, according to an Associated Press poll last week.
Mr. Bush confused voters recently by seeming to repeat his 1988 "no new taxes" pledge and then having a spokesman say he wasn't making such a commitment again.
In fact, the president says that he opposes tax increases and that his support for a 1990 increase was a mistake. He has proposed an across-the-board cut to be paid for by reductions in spending.
While Mr. Bush clearly hurt himself by breaking his 1988 pledge, Mr. Clinton seems not to have suffered by advocating both a tax increase -- on individuals making at least $150,000 and families earning at least $200,000 -- and a tax cut of unspecified size for the middle class.
Mr. Clinton's pollster, Stan Greenberg, suggests the GOP is on the wrong side of the tax issue.
"There's much more support for the concept of raising taxes on the wealthy than tax relief itself," he says, "because people actually think the government is not spending . . . on what it ought to spend on."
Voters also want a change from 1980s tax policies that benefited the wealthy, according to Mr. Greenberg.
"When Clinton talks about raising taxes on those over $200,000, or giving the middle class a break, people are not plugging that into some mathematical model," he says. "What they're saying is Clinton is going to take us in a different direction, one in which maybe the average person has a better chance of doing better."
Mr. Greenberg says Mr. Clinton's proposal to raise taxes helps him in another way: "It also says you are independent of the most powerful, wealthy interests in the country."
But with six weeks to go before the election, Mr. Bush continues to press the case for tax cuts. Interviewed yesterday by conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, he said that "the biggest difference between Governor Clinton and me [is that] he has already come out wanting more taxes and more spending."
"I believe, when the government takes 24 percent of the total gross domestic product, that is too much," Mr. Bush said.
"And so I think people want tax relief, which I am for."