By JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON - Democrats are growing increasingly confident that a two-pronged tax attack on Republican Mitt Romney - one part policy, one part personal - will help President Barack Obama lure pivotal support from middle class voters.
Led by Obama, the Democrats are going after Romney for seeking to protect tax cuts for the wealthy and for refusing to release more information on the taxes he pays on his personal fortune.
Democrats say both public and private polls suggest the double-barreled focus on taxes is giving Obama an edge in the race. The strategy also gives the president an avenue to campaign on the economy - the top issue for voters - while steering clear of talking about the nation's high unemployment.
Three months before the election, national polls show Obama with a slight lead. And Romney will spend the coming weeks - starting Saturday with a bus tour - trying to change the trajectory of the race. In recent days, he's gone on the offensive by criticizing Obama on welfare, making his own play for middle class voters, after months of taking heat from Democrats.
Republicans reject the notion that Romney's $5 trillion tax cut proposal could hurt him in the fall. But some party operatives acknowledge that he is being damaged by declining to release more than two years of his own tax returns.
"I do think this has hurt the governor a little bit," said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster who worked on Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. "Ironically, it's really less about 'rich guy' and more about transparency and honesty. So Team Romney has to find a way - if they're not going to release, which I don't think they will - they have to find a way to demonstrate honesty and transparency, attributes that people take very seriously in selecting a president."
Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, said the tax criticism has "really seeped into the American psyche" and is affecting the way voters view Romney.
"They're thinking, this is not somebody who is going to fight for me. This is not somebody who even understands the world I live in," said Cardona, who was a senior adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign four years ago.
The Obama campaign ramped up its criticism of Romney's refusal to release his tax returns Thursday with a new television advertisement that - without evidence - raises the prospect that the GOP challenger paid no taxes some years.
"Did Romney pay 10 percent in taxes? 5 percent? Zero? We don't know," the narrator says. The ad will run in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio while Romney is on a bus tour through those states starting Saturday.
Romney says he has paid taxes every year. But he's provided little documentation to back up his assertions.
His campaign dismissed the ad and accused Obama of running "a dirty campaign."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., helped lay the groundwork when he claimed last week that an anonymous source told him Romney had not paid taxes for 10 years. Reid provided no evidence.
On the policy front, Obama has sought to highlight the contrast between the two candidates' tax proposals.
The president is pushing Congress to extend tax cuts only for families making less than $250,000 a year (individuals making less than $200,000). He wants to let the cuts expire at the end of the year for families who make more, though they would still be taxed at the lower rate for their first $250,000 in income.
Romney's tax plan calls for a full extension of the tax cuts, first passed under George W. Bush, plus an additional 20 percent cut across the board. Romney and some economists argue that raising taxes on anyone right now could send the sluggish economy back into a recession.
But Obama, seeking to tap into middle class economic anxiety, has mocked Romney's proposal as "trickle-down tax-cut fairy dust." And this week he called the plan "Romney-hood" or "Robin Hood in reverse."
Surveys suggest Obama's plans resonate with voters.
A Pew Research Center Poll released last month showed 44 percent of Americans believe raising taxes on the wealthiest would help the economy, not hurt it. Just 22 percent believe the opposite. The same poll showed that Americans believe two-to-one that Obama's tax proposals would make the tax system more fair, not less.
Democrats say they're also buoyed by private polling in both the presidential election and competitive congressional races that shows strong voter support for the president's tax policies. One Democratic strategist said the internal polls show at least 60 percent of Americans, including independents and some Republicans, backing the notion that the wealthy should pay more in taxes and that the nation's deficit must be reduced through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.
But Republican strategist Charlie Black, an informal adviser to Romney's campaign, disputes the notion that Obama's arguments are gaining ground.
"The Obama campaign outspent us in June and the first half of July with all those arguments, and the numbers haven't moved anywhere, even in the national polls," Black said.
Whatever the case, Obama's team doesn't intend to move off its tax criticism.
"You can bet the president will be talking about their differing visions for tax cuts up until the moment the polls close on Nov. 6," said Jennifer Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman.