Candidates to woo middle class at debate

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and U.S.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and U.S. President Barack Obama, greet one another at Magness Arena moments before the start of their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver. (Oct. 3, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

The Commission on Presidential Debates picked the right place for Tuesday's showdown between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney.

Smack-dab in the middle of middle-class suburbs.

Both parties are playing to the suburbs, as they have since 1988, when Americans in suburban centers -- which, to be fair, includes most Americans -- emerged as the primary deciders of presidential contests.


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It's no wonder then Republicans and Democrats -- as the vice-presidential candidates did last week -- keep harping on the need to help/save/lighten the tax burden on the middle class. Or that both sides aggressively are wooing small-business owners.

During their first debate, Obama and Romney both reached out to middle-class voters. "We do our best when the middle class is doing well," Obama said early on.

"It's small businesses that create jobs in America," Romney added later.

On Long Island, as in other suburban areas, however, there's no real difference between small-business owners and the middle class.

"I think they don't get it," Julie Marchesella, incoming president of the Nassau Council Chambers of Commerce, said Friday, just before some 500 people sat down for the group's annual awards and legislative breakfast. "We are the middle class."

Indeed, on Long Island and in New York State, small-business owners are more than that. According to E. Christopher Murray, the council's president, small businesses account for 60 percent of the region's jobs.

Sixty percent.

If that were one company, it would command the royal treatment from the public and policy-makers. But because small businesses spread across the suburbs are, well, small, their impact and push for assistance too often are overlooked.

On Tuesday, the presidential candidates will have at it again. This time in a town hall setting, where Romney and Obama will hear firsthand what's on the mind of so-called undecided voters.

Four years ago, in the same kind of setting, Obama and Sen. John McCain wooed middle-class voters, too. And while the Obama administration has established programs aimed at small businesses and the community of communities that make up most suburbs, it's not been enough.

Here's some bad news.

When Obama and Romney reach out, they're not reaching out to a logical audience, Long Island, where the candidates will face each other at Hofstra University.

They're reaching out to the middle class in suburbs in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and other swing states. (Under the weighted Electoral College system, New York -- and thus Long Island -- isn't viewed as competitive because most of its electoral votes already are being counted for the Democrat.)

But that doesn't mean Long Islanders shouldn't be listening.

Or demanding that the federal government fashion better ways to serve a region with aged infrastructure, an older population and middle-income families and businesses scrambling for tax and other relief.

The good news is that federal policies that aid more coveted suburban communities would aid Long Island, too.

"What Long Island and other suburban areas should be demanding is a plan for economic development, job growth and better infrastructure," said Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra.

He's right. And, come Tuesday, here's hoping that someone in that town hall crowd asks the question. Makes the demand. And gets some answers.