CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Every politician in the U.S. presidential race claimed to be fighting for the middle class, and it seemed a sound strategy -- until the Democratic front-runners tried to define who, exactly, was middle class.
While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama couldn't agree during a recent debate whether someone earning $97,500 or more could be considered middle class, voters have little difficulty judging who isn't -- the presidential candidates themselves.
"None of them really represent the middle class," said Rick Fulmer, 52, who works at the YMCA as a fitness trainer. "Both parties are tied to big business. It takes millions to run for president."
While Republicans and Democrats alike have appealed to middle-class voters for support ahead of the November 2008 presidential election, the sudden attempt to define that category has hit a nerve.
Sparring over tax policy during a debate in Nevada, Obama said those earning $97,500 or more are among the top 6 percent of income earners, and thus upper class. Clinton disagreed, citing incomes of firefighters and school supervisors.
While her rivals can try to paint Clinton as out-of-touch with poorer Americans in early voting states like Iowa, class has always been an ill-defined concept in America, where all but the poorest and richest consider themselves part of an amorphous middle class aspiring for better.
Census data show about a third of American households earned between $35,000 and $75,000 a year in 2005. The liberal Drum Major Institute for Public Policy says the middle class has come to mean families with incomes of $25,000 to about $100,000.
But economists and voters alike say the definition depends not only on income, but geography, family size and even lifestyle.
By that measure, Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos said it is no surprise that New York Sen. Clinton has a higher ceiling for the middle class.
On the East Coast, a two-income family making $200,000 can be struggling to pay the mortgage, college tuition or childcare -- while the same income would go a long way in the heartland.
Panagopoulos said the fact that most Americans consider themselves middle class makes them an impossible demographic to ignore, and a reason candidates like former Sen. John Edwards, the son of a millworker, emphasizes a modest background.
"Voters can connect to the type of story that someone like John Edwards can tell having grown up in a working-class family and worked his way to the top," Panagopoulos said.
Candidates with modest backgrounds win points with Cincinnati sales manager Andre Williams, 32.
"If they were grounded at a young age and grew up ordinary, no matter where you go, you're going to have that perspective. You remember where you came from," said Williams, a Democrat.
Jessica Yarber, a 25-year-old medical student, also gave Democrats an edge on middle-class issues.
"I think Republicans have more old money and wealth than do Democrats, and that makes them more out of touch," she said.
But the assumption that Democrats represent the middle class and Republicans the wealthy has been challenged.
A recent study found Democrats -- who have strongest support in big cities and along America's Northeast and West coasts, where living costs are high -- often represent wealthier districts than Republicans.
Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said 2005 tax data showed Democrats represent nearly 60 percent of the wealthiest one-third of congressional districts -- those with a high number of people earning more than $100,000 per year.
Franc said his study has annoyed some.
"A lot of people of the leftist persuasion don't seem to like it. It's counterintuitive to people," Franc said.
He argues the pressure from wealthy constituents may leave Democrats fighting over where to levy taxes to pay for promised social programs like health care or Social Security -- the point that sparked the debate between Clinton and Obama.
Either way, Cincinnati stay-at-home mom Deborah Taylor said the struggles she and her husband face raising their toddler daughter on $80,000 a year are lost on politicians.
"Neither party cares about the middle class," the 37-year-old Republican said. "At after a certain point they're all out of touch."
Editing by David Alexander