WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) says Howard Dean (search) and Dick Gephardt (search) would raise taxes in more ways than one. Joe Lieberman (search) says he's the one who'll chop middle-class taxes most. Gephardt would scrap past tax cuts to pay for health coverage. Dean would scrap them, too, but find a way to give some money back. John Edwards (search) says he's got a better way. Wesley Clark (search) says his plan's more sweeping.
Not to worry, not many people do.
With just days left until the Democratic primaries and caucuses begin, the major presidential candidates are in overdrive as each tries to stand out from the pack by promoting his tax plan as the best. Dollar signs and percentage points are being bandied about with abandon in a mind-jarring whirl of competing statistics.
"I don't think the voters can absorb it," said Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. "It's shades of gray."
Still, the tax debate offers the candidates an important opportunity to draw a contrast between themselves and President Bush, even if it's tougher to make a clear case that one Democratic plan is better than the rest.
All the major candidates say the tax cuts Bush pushed through over the past three years are too costly and unfairly favor the rich. But that's where the unanimity ends. Some want to scrap all the tax cuts, others want to get rid of certain parts, and some have plans to raise more money elsewhere or provide more tax relief to select groups.
And, boy, can they get worked up over whose plan is best.
The candidates have had a number of testy exchanges over taxes in recent debates and unleashed a flurry of ads faulting one another's proposals. You can almost imagine the Republicans squirreling away the Democrats' negative comments to use against the party's nominee in the fall campaign.
For example, Kerry, taking aim at Dean's proposal to do away with marriage penalty relief, said at one recent debate, "Now, there's a terrific message: Democrats in America, if you get married, you ought to pay more taxes. I think it's wrong."
Despite the hubbub, "it's a tyranny of small differences among the plans," said William Gale, co-director of the Tax Policy Center (search), a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. "I'm amazed at how heated the rhetoric is."
In essence, Gale said, all the candidates are proposing "progressive, simplifying, revenue-raising tax plans."
The tricky part politically is that another name for a revenue increase is a tax increase.
By putting the tax cuts in place, Bush made a first big move, leaving the Democrats to contend with what diplomats might call new "facts on the ground," said Alan Auerbach, director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California.
"He's essentially daring them to take it away," said Auerbach. Even though many Americans question whether the government can afford the tax cuts, he said, once the money is in their pockets "they get used to it. Now the candidates are put in the position of trying to decide how much of it to take away."
Americans themselves are divided on the question. An ABC News-Washington Post poll last month found 49 percent of adults were more likely to vote for a candidate who wants to keep the tax cuts in place and 41 percent more likely to favor a candidate who wants to repeal the cuts or reduce them.
The candidates are trying different strategies to make their proposals appealing, or at least palatable.
Gephardt, for example, argues that all Bush's tax cuts must go, and promises to use the money for health care coverage. "I'm going to give $3,000 to the average family in economic benefits instead of the $500 or $700 that they get under the Bush tax cuts," he says.
Front-runner Dean, too, wants to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts. He says Bush's plan was so tilted toward the rich, "the truth is that there was no middle-class tax cut (search) for most people." But after his plan drew mounting criticism from Democratic rivals, Dean is suddenly putting new emphasis on reducing the tax burden on the middle class.
He's talking about an income tax credit to offset payroll taxes, but has been vague about details and no formal proposal is expected for a few weeks.
Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and Clark all have plans to repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while preserving those benefiting the middle class, along with various proposals to raise or cut taxes elsewhere.
After fading in importance in recent years, the tax issue is shaping up to be central this fall, said Schoen. So even if the distinctions between the Democrats on the issue are blurry at this point, he said, "they know they can't afford to leave it be."