Phoenix Democrats are used to being called tax raisers -- though rarely by fellow Democrats.
But the question of whether to roll back all of the tax cuts President Bush has signed into law is dividing the party's leading presidential contenders. Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt favor a complete repeal, while rivals Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Wesley Clark and John Edwards say that would also get rid of child tax credits, an easing of the marriage penalty, and a reduction of the lowest income-tax rate.
"That would mean a middle-class tax increase," said Lieberman, a Connecticut senator.
While the candidates agree on repealing what Edwards calls "George Bush's tax cuts for millionaires," Dean and Gephardt said that the money saved from returning all taxes to the pre-Bush level would provide money for health care programs and deficit reductions, which they contend would help the middle-class more than what they received in the Bush package.
"The Bush tax cuts are a miserable failure," Gephardt said when the issue arose at the candidates' latest debate last week in Phoenix. "They have not worked."
While the cuts loom as one of the big issues of the Democratic primary season in early 2004, analysts are less sure how it will play out in the fall campaign against Bush.
"The whole notion of taking tax cuts away from the rich is always popular," said Karlyn Bowman, who analyzes polls for the American Enterprise Institute. "But I'm not sure that's how the Bush administration will allow the issue to be painted."
'Strangling the economy'
Indeed, Republicans are already saying that the Democrats want to raise taxes for everybody, differing only in degree.
"It ends up strangling the economy," said Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. "If that's their answer, I don't think it's a viable one."
Dean and Gephardt, who are atop the polls in Iowa, which kicks off the nominating contest with its Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, now are trying to fend off charges that they would harm the middle class.
Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who faces a must-win against Dean in the New Hampshire primary of Jan. 27, often tells the story of a family in that state that would pay an additional $3,000 a year in taxes under the Gephardt and Dean plans. He said one of the few bright spots in the economy has been consumer spending.
"If all of a sudden, when we're trying to recover, we sucked a whole lot of money out of those consumers, we are not going to be able to keep the economy moving," Kerry said.
Edwards, a North Carolina senator looking to break through in the South Carolina primary Feb. 3, said full repeal meant that a family of four making $40,000 a year would pay an additional $2,000 in taxes.
"I grew up in a middle-class family whose taxes they're talking about raising," he said.
Clark, the newest candidate, has proposed repealing the tax cuts for the top 2 percent of wage earners. Like all the Democratic challengers, Clark said the administration's emphasis on tax cuts reflected a bankrupt domestic policy.
"This administration hasn't had a real economic strategy," Clark said. "All it's had is a tax-cut policy."
Three long-shot candidates -- Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton -- also have assaulted Bush's tax cut policy.
Attributing the bad economy in part to the tax cuts, Sharpton cited the accompanying rise of local state and property taxes: "We're not talking tax cuts, we're talking tax shifts."
Braun, who would target the tax cuts for the rich, challenged Republican allegations of "class warfare." She said Democrats have nothing against success, "but as people do well, I think they have a responsibility to build community."
Kucinich cited a lack of equity within the Bush tax cuts, saying "the top 272,000 taxpayers are getting as much of a benefit under the Bush tax cut as the bottom 129 million."