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Washington - With his Republican opponent now almost certain to be Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire, President Barack Obama is trying to put fairer taxes at the centre of his re-election campaign, but a new poll suggests the message may fall flat in swing states.
Obama will talk about taxes in Florida on Tuesday when he delivers a speech in support of the “Buffett Rule”, a measure to insure a 30-percent tax on income over $1-million earned by wealthy Americans.
Vice-President Joe Biden will travel to the battleground state of New Hampshire on Thursday also to discuss taxes. The Obama campaign sees the issue as a weak point for Romney, a former private equity executive and ex-governor of Massachusetts.
“Middle class families are taking it on the chin right now and they don't see others doing their fair share,” Wisconsin Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin said in a conference call set up by the Obama campaign.
But Obama's push on tax fairness may be falling on deaf ears in the swing states where the November 6 election will likely be decided.
In 12 battleground states, 80 percent of independent voters lacking strong views on either Obama or Romney said they prefer a candidate who focuses on creating economic opportunity rather than reducing income inequality, according to a poll by the moderate Democratic group Third Way released on Monday.
All the same, Obama leads probable Republican presidential candidate Romney by 35 percent to 29 percent among the same group of “swing independents” in the poll.
Obama's renewed focus on tax rates comes as the White House stares down foreboding economic news elsewhere.
High gasoline prices hovering near $4 a gallon are set to remain a hurdle to re-election for Obama and hiring slowed in March, though the unemployment rate dipped to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent.
“President Obama and his team are desperate to avoid talking about last Friday's incredibly weak jobs report, which is why they create sideshows to distract people from what really matters,” said Andrea Saul, a spokesperson for Romney.
“Apparently, the only job the White House is interested in saving belongs to Obama. Everyone else will have to continue to suffer. Mitt Romney is running for president to put America back to work,” she added.
Democrats in Congress are working with the White House to call attention to low tax rates paid by wealthy Americans.
On April 16, the Senate will take up the “Buffett Rule” although it is unlikely to be approved as Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to bring the issue to a full vote.
The proposal is named after billionaire investor and Obama supporter Warren Buffett who has said it is unfair that he pays a lower effective tax rate than many ordinary Americans, including his secretary.
So central is Buffett's case to the White House's tax message that his secretary Debbie Bosanek sat alongside First Lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union speech in January to make the point that secretaries can pay a higher tax rate than their rich bosses, who often earn most of their money from investments rather than a pay cheque.
Obama's proposed change in tax policy would raise $47-billion in revenue over the next decade, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, a congressional score keeper.
As well as increasing revenue and possibly appealing to middle-class voters, the Obama campaign's focus on taxes has the added benefit of taking direct aim at Romney
In January, Romney came under criticism, even from within the Republican Party, for paying a low tax rate. He later released his tax returns from 2010 and 2011, showing that he paid an effective tax rate of 14.5 percent during the two-year period.
Romney earns most of his income from investment profits, dividends and interest.
The Romney campaign team says it is happy to discuss taxes and their candidate's plans to lower rates across the board.
Republicans accuse Obama of trying to start class warfare by targeting the rich.
“This is kind of like spring training,” said one Republican operative familiar with the Romney campaign. “The Democrats are trying out different lines on taxes. If they want to argue over whether we want to lower taxes or not, that is fine with the Romney folks.”
The Obama campaign has called for Romney to release the last 23 years of his tax returns - the number Obama's team says Romney provided to former presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 when he was being considered as a running mate.
Last week, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told MSNBC that Romney's financial disclosures were “sufficient”. During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama released his own tax returns dating back to 2000. - Reuters