WASHINGTON -- "Middle Class First," said the placards on display as Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic Convention. And indeed, speaker after speaker has invoked the party's devotion to the lot of middle-class Americans in 2012. The rich also have featured in the rhetoric, albeit as a punching bag.
But the poor? Not so much. They've been mentioned only fleetingly.
The discrepancy makes sense for President Barack Obama's strategy. A large majority of Americans identify themselves as middle class, while the poor lack political clout for a host of reasons. Yet for a party long known for its role as defender of the downtrodden, the rhetorical patterns are striking.
"There have been too few references to the poor, and most of the references are to a group of individuals who are moving on up," said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"There's been no reference to the poor as a lasting reality in this country, and that's unfortunate," he said. "Poverty has been with us since we formed this union, and it's worth owning up to and mentioning in a deliberate way."
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also has noticed the trend -- both at the convention and in the preceding months of campaigning. He said he appointed a group of his caucus members to meet with Democratic Party and Obama campaign officials, "saying to them, there seems to be, whether intentional or not, an exclusion of poor people."
Cleaver said Obama aides pushed back, contending that the administration remained intent on developing policies to aid the poor even if it did not frequently evoke them by name in public pronouncements.
"To some degree that's true," Cleaver said. "In helping the poor, we'd prefer to see policy rather than hear speeches."
"But from time to time, I'd like to hear we're trying to erase poverty in this country," he added. "We haven't made that a major point in our presentations at the convention. But make no mistake -- it's a major part of who we are as a party."
A member of Cleaver's caucus, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, was one of the few convention speakers to stress that point from the podium, saying the Democrats "make ending poverty a national priority."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also departed from the middle-class focus, devoting a section of his well-received speech to Orchard Gardens Elementary School in Boston -- serving mostly impoverished black and Hispanic students -- that has been able to improve in recent years from its bottom-of-the-barrel standing. At one point, he recalled visiting a first-grade class there.
"Those children are America's children, too, yours and mine," Patrick said. "For this country to rise, they must rise -- and they and their cause must have a champion in the White House."
Then there was Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Roman Catholic social-justice organization Network, whose entire speech dealt with poverty -- and the need to combat it. She said the budget plan endorsed by the Republican ticket "failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty."
Mitt Romney, of course, tries to keep pace with the Democrats in direct appeals to the middle class, but he did make reference to the poor in the speech accepting his nomination on Aug. 30.
"Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty," Romney told the GOP Convention. "Look around you -- these aren't strangers. These are our brothers and sisters."
At the Democratic convention, out of dozens of speakers addressing social and economic policy, Campbell was a rarity in never mentioning the middle class.
Among the abundant examples from her fellow speakers:
--Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland: "A strong America depends on a successful and growing middle class, and this election is a moment of truth for middle-class families."
--Rep. John Larson of Connecticut: "Are we going to let them (Romney and Ryan) take us backwards? Back to an America where winners take all and the middle class picks up the tab?"
--Delaware Gov. Jack Markell: "From the moment he took office, President Obama has delivered for the middle class. He believes that we need to grow our economy from the middle out, and not from the top down, that we need to keep America a land of middle-class opportunity."
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York introduced himself as "a proud product of the middle class" whose father ran an exterminating company (and acquainted the family with the aroma of roach spray).
"Today, families like the one I grew up in still believe in that American dream," Schumer said. "But as President Obama says, it's a make-or-break moment for the middle class."
Elizabeth Warren, the Democrats' Senate candidate in Massachusetts, also evoked the middle class repeatedly, but in the context of hard times for many of its members "who are hanging on by their fingernails."
"For many years now, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered," she said.
To Olivia Golden, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute, that kind of rhetoric could be effective in bridging the gap between the middle class and the poor.
"It helps get the empathetic response that we're all in this together," said Golden, who helped oversee policies for low-income families in the Clinton administration. "Emphasizing that fragility of being on the edge is a unifying theme."
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