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KAI RYSSDAL: One day before Super Tuesday, Arizona Senator John McCain has made a new pitch to voters. At a rally in Boston the Republican presidential candidate promised to come up with specific policies to turn the economy around. Said he'll do it by "unleashing the forces of the free market." That right there might be the clearest point of distinction between the Republican and Democratic hopefuls in the race. And with the economy topping the list of issues that voters are concerned about, it could spell trouble for the GOP. Jeremy Hobson reports.
JEREMY HOBSON: Todd Krost, who lives outside Detroit, is a lifelong Republican. But this year, he and his wife, who both work and make about 60 grand between them, are planning to vote for a Democrat. Someone who's addressing their economic concerns. He says all they're hearing from Republican candidates are biographies.
Todd Krost: I'm not so much concerned about that as I am our pocketbook and, you know, what my family's gonna do for the next couple years.
Same goes for Carly Cummings, a small business owner and lifelong Republican from Omaha, Nebraska:
Carly Cummings: Well, I am for less government, but I am also for taking care of everyone and making sure that just that we look out for our fellow man. So I feel like there is more compassion and just more foresight economically on the Democratic side to be able to reach out to a broader variety of people.
The problem for Republican candidates is not just limited to Todd and Carly. It extends to what former Bush speechwriter David Frum calls the middle-middle. Traditionally, Republican suburban or exurban families making about $70,000 a year.
Scott Keeter, of the Pew Research Center, has the numbers to prove it:
Scott Keeter: Over the past few years, we have seen a very large partisan gap in ratings of the national economy. We are now seeing that gap declining somewhat, as more Republicans are saying that they don't think the economy is doing well.
Hobson: So traditionally, Republicans have said the economy is doing fine under this Republican president, and now they're starting to break away and sound more like Democrats?
Keeter: That's right.
Keeter says people are even taking the unusual step of changing their party affiliation. And he says that change is happening most among middle class voters.
Keeter: People tell us they're struggling with the cost of health care and health insurance, the job market in certain places. Increasingly we're hearing concerns about housing.
Matthew Dowd, who was the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, says this middle-middle is vital.
Matthew Dowd: It's a body of voters that are looking for a candidate and candidates that sort of speak to their, where they are today and their future.
Hobson: Can you win without these people?
Dowd: If you can, it would be a shocking development to think you can win without these voters. In almost every single election that I can think of -- whether it's for governor, for senator, for Congress, for president -- the candidate that carries these voters wins.
Dowd says it's the message. Republicans are still talking about endless tax cuts when they need a new playbook.
Dowd: But I still don't know if they're fully awake to the problem that is brewing out there among the middle class.
Rob Autry is fully awake to it. He's a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm. He says there's been a paradigm shift. American voters now see a greater role for government than they did in the Reagan era, and it's time for candidates to speak to that.
Rob Autry: Talking about education, talking about government spending and cracking down on wasteful spending, health care and Republican candidates at the presidential level are talking about health care and controlling cost. Talking about the issues that impact the pocketbooks of middle class voters. I think Republicans have to get back to doing that.
If they don't, he says, some Republicans are fearing a huge swing in the pendulum of power, a la 1980 and the Reagan revolution. And he says it could take quite a while for the party to undo that.
In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.