WASHINGTON – One of the busiest days so far in the Democratic presidential campaign saw several hopeful candidates stake out ground far and wide on the political spectrum.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), who has been trailing in the polls and is eager for traction and a way to distinguish himself from his eight rivals, became the first Democratic candidate to formally propose and promise middle-class tax cuts.
"I will cut taxes to encourage savings and wealth creation for the middle class and working poor, not take away their tax cuts. I believe ordinary Americans are taxed too much, not too little," Edwards said in a speech Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Edwards said he would repeal $300 billion worth of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, put half toward deficit reduction and use $160 billion to cut middle-class taxes over the next decade.
The plan would include:
— Tax credits for first-time homeowners;
— Tax cuts on middle-class capital gains and dividends; and
— Matching funds for retirement savings.
Edwards said he would reverse Bush's income tax cuts for the wealthy — those earning more than $240,000 — and increase capital gains taxes on people earning more than $350,000. The latter action would restore $300 billion over 10 years to government coffers, aides said.
"I know this president wants to make the next election about taxes. That's why I'm going to tell America the whole story: This president is the reason your taxes are going up. I'm going to cut them," Edwards said. "Their economic vision has one goal: To get rid of taxes on unearned income and shift the tax burden onto people who work. This crowd wants a world where the only people who have to pay taxes are the ones who do the work."
While Edwards pounded President Bush, Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network (search), said Democrats need to fix their party's agenda to focus on the positive.
"As a party, we need to stop beating up on President Bush, stop beating up on each other and create a positive optimistic vision for this country," he said.
Rosenberg said Democrats must also acknowledge that the GOP has built a superior political machine, and must try to start building their own.
"I think Democrats are in denial about where we are as a party," he said in an interview Monday. "Republicans are in a better position to be the majority party into the future."
He proposed a party agenda that focuses on economic prosperity, global leadership and homeland security. It's a contrast to the issues that Democrats have championed in recent elections, such as protecting Social Security and Medicare.
But that's not the route taken by moderate Democrats, Sens. Joe Lieberman (search) of Connecticut and Bob Graham (search) of Florida, who are trying to counter the liberal assertion that only the left can be true to socially responsible ideals. Both candidates spoke to NDN on Tuesday.
Lieberman, who has been criticized by the left as Republican-light, chose to speak on a favorite liberal issue: fighting poverty.
"As president, it will be my goal, and as Americans, it will be our moral quest to reduce the poverty rate to the lowest it has ever been in our history, within four years, and then to go further to cut the rate of poverty by one-third in 10 years," Lieberman said.
Graham, chairman of the New Democrats in the Senate and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused the Bush administration of withdrawing from the war on terror and misleading the nation to make war on Iraq.
"This administration has had a pattern of deception and deceit against the American people. In two-and-a-half years, our country has gone from most trusted to most suspect," he said.
On the West Coast, the issue was energy. Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) of Missouri detailed his so-called Apollo Project to wean the United States off Persian Gulf oil in the next 10 years. It's a 10-point plan to make sure 20 percent of U.S. energy comes from renewable sources in 20 years.
Gephardt has missed more than a dozen House votes on energy policy while campaigning, but his plan, while similar to his rivals' proposals, is set apart by one of the toughest attacks on Saudi Arabia from any politician in either party.
"It's time we stopped behaving like the United States of Saudi Arabia, and started working toward total economic freedom from Saudi Arabia, from the oil it exports and from the radical fundamentalism it has visited on the world," Gephardt told the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.
Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have also talked about repealing the president's tax cuts and using the money for broad health care reforms. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has offered tax credits to small businesses and their employees to make health insurance more affordable
As the presidential hopefuls laid their plans like breadcrumbs across America's trail, Bush defenders say Democrats don't have a chance.
Democrats are "trying to find an opportunity to break through the clutter. The president is the one who has articulated policy that has become law," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who met with GOP activists in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday.
President Bush attended his first fund-raiser Tuesday night, which earned $3.5 million. The event launched a multi-week campaign by the president to mount his re-election bid and fight back some of the attacks Democrats have launched in the past several months.
"There are nine Democrats who spend all of their time saying negative things about the president, and that means there's a large resonation, a large reinforcement of a negative message that's coming at the president," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said of the seven campaign events the president is attending and four to be attended by Vice President Dick Cheney over the next couple weeks.
Rich Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he expects the race will tighten when it comes to the general election. Bond said the nine Democrats, who are fighting amongst themselves to be the voice of the party, are "laying seeds" with their proposals.
"Once all the nonsense boils down to a concrete persona, that candidate will have weathered all kind of campaign adventures, will have potentially united the Democratic Party," Bond said.
Added Al From, founder and chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council (search), another centrist Democratic group: "There's nothing wrong with a good fight in the primary over who is going to be the nominee. The object of the primary is to declare a winner, not to make everybody get together and make nice."
Still, some Democrats say the party itself needs to focus on specifics.
"Democrats need to get better organized and have some spokespeople who speak for a unified Democratic Party and they need to speak about economic issues above all else," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future (search).
Fox News' Naheda Zayed and The Associated Press contributed to this report.