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The republicans have a winning hand in the 1996 presidential election. The question is: Will they play it?

Every American grapples with balancing the family budget. Every American wants a better paying job. Every American wants to build a nest egg to pass along to their children.

These are all mainstream American dreams, and that's what the budget debate should be all about. But somehow, it has deteriorated into an uninspiring technocratic exercise presided over by a bunch of accountants.

What we need here is that vision thing. The Republicans need to demonstrate in clear and simple terms what the benefits of a balanced budget will be for the average American. Not for the fat cats but for the average Joe.

But the Republicans have allowed themselves to be painted-once again-as the uncaring, unfeeling champion of the privileged class, ready and eager to snatch away the entitlements of the elderly and the destitute.

The Republicans have no overriding theme, other than they want to reduce benefits to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars so they can bring into balance some huge, abstract budget. Is it any wonder President Clinton is kicking their butts?

As The Wall Street Journal pointed out on the Medicare debate, "Mr. Clinton has decided that using Medicare to flog Republicans will help him win re-election, and maybe restore a Democratic House in the bargain. The idea of `cuts' scares lots of seniors, and the media are asleep, so he figures he'll get away with it."

The point is Republicans are letting him get away with it. The battle is being fought on Democrats' traditional turf-the rich against the poor, class warfare at its meanest-and Republicans need to gain home field advantage.

This situation is ready-made for a return of "Harry and Louise," the highly effective TV commercial duo that cleaned the Clintons' clock on healthcare a couple of years ago.

Harry and Louise could talk about how the Republicans want to balance the budget to restore economic growth in the country. And if we had more growth we could cut back on taxes and allow citizens to save more and pass along more to their children.

But the trouble is politicians basically don't believe in advertising-or at least the compelling power of positive advertising. They believe in nasty, reduce-your-opponent-to-a-driveling-idiot negative advertising, and they have consequently caused much confusion over what advertising is supposed to accomplish.

The conventional wisdom is that Steve Forbes' amazing rise is due to his spending buckets of his own money on advertising. Some of it was spent to degrade his opponents, to be sure, but the reason he has done far better than anyone predicted is he is the only candidate with a positive, pro-growth message.

In his own, unemotional way, Steve Forbes has struck a chord. Republicans should seize on his momentum, and let Harry and Louise show how balancing the budget is good for them-and you.

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