July 17, 2006

Bayh calls for renewed focus on middle class

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of
Indiana, a potential presidential contender in 2008, said on
Monday the party needs to strengthen its appeal to middle-class
Americans or risk defeat in the next two elections.

"We may consider ourselves the party of the middle class
but too many middle-class Americans no longer consider us their
party," Bayh said in a speech at the National Press Club.

"They have left the Democratic Party in droves, costing us
the last two presidential elections and the last six
congressional elections. If we don't learn some lessons, we'll
lose in 2006 and 2008 as well," said Bayh, one of about a dozen
Democrats considering a presidential run.

"We have both a patriotic responsibility and a political
imperative to reclaim our legacy as the party of the middle
class by fighting for their interests," the former Indiana
governor said before flying to Iowa, site of the traditional
kickoff caucus in the White House race, to repeat his
middle-class message.

Bayh proposed several measures to create economic
opportunity for the middle class, including a $6,000 tax credit
to make college more affordable, a plan to cut health insurance
premiums for 57 million middle-income Americans and a program
to boost retirement savings.

Bayh said the Democratic economic agenda too often ignored
the middle class. He cited efforts to raise the minimum wage
and the recent call by former Sen. John Edwards, his potential
presidential rival, to eradicate poverty.

While both were worthy goals, he said, they did not
directly address the challenges facing the middle class. "We
must re-establish the Democratic Party as the instrument of
middle-class progress," he said.

Bayh criticized President George W. Bush and White House
political adviser Karl Rove for focusing on politics at the
expense of the middle class, saying "inaction, incompetence and
ideological extremism" had led them to ignore growing economic
problems including rising gas prices, health insurance costs
and national debt.

"Washington is broken," said Bayh, a two-term senator.

He said he was not discouraged by opinion polls showing him
in low single digits in support among Democrats. Polls showed
Edwards in a similar spot in 2002 and 2003, he said, and
Edwards eventually finished a strong second in Iowa in 2004.

"There is something kind of liberating about being an
underdog," Bayh said, adding with a laugh, "We've managed
expectations fairly well here."