Appealing to small business voters is key strategy in presidential campaign playbook

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NEW YORK — Small businesses aren't in the dire straits they were four years ago, but presidential candidates aren't letting go of an issue they think will get them votes.

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has made small business one of the top items on her campaign agenda. Republican Ted Cruz says the primary problems hurting small companies are the health care law, taxes and government regulations. Republican Rand Paul says the tax law is burdening small business and slowing the economy.

Small businesses are in better shape than in 2012 when many owners were scared to hire people and spend on expansion. These days, owners are more optimistic. Their companies have healthier finances and are investing in equipment and property, according to several surveys.

Still, candidates are already talking about the nation's 28 million small businesses. It's not a bad tactic since a huge block of people own a small company or work for one. In the 2012 race, there was little noise about small business until four months before Election Day, when Republican Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of not caring about small companies.

"It's a brilliant strategy, anything you can do that gets the awareness of 28 million small business owners — you're impacting 56 million potential voters," says Pat Dickson, a professor of entrepreneurship at Wake Forest University.

BUZZ WORDS

When candidates say "small business," they're talking about creating jobs, telling voters something they want to hear, says David Primo, professor of political science and business at the University of Rochester.

"It's almost like making education a plank of your campaign. Who's going to argue that you shouldn't have better education?" Primo says.

It's also a way of connecting with the middle class.

"I want to be a small business president," Clinton said Tuesday during a meeting with small business owners in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and then went on to describe growing up in a middle class home where her father ran a small drapery fabric printing company.

"My mother, my brothers and I and occasionally a few day laborers would help out with the actual printing process. That's what put food on the table and gave us a solid middle class home," Clinton said.

So far, though, there are more sound bites than specifics when candidates talk about helping small companies.

Clinton called for an overhaul of federal regulations to make it easier for small businesses to operate, and for tax law changes that increase credits and deductions for small businesses. She didn't go into details about what those changes should be.

Cruz, a Texas senator isn't ready to roll out his solutions for small business problems, spokesman Rick Tyler says. Cruz has said he wants to reduce the size of the IRS and create a flat tax to replace the complex federal tax code.

Paul, a Kentucky senator, wants to implement a plan that would eliminate two existing federal regulations for every new one, campaign manager Chip Englander says. In the coming weeks, Paul will release his plan to overhaul taxes including those on small business, Englander says.

NOT SO EASY

While candidates talk about cutting small business taxes and government regulations, that may be easier said than done. Lower taxes would require a makeover of the tax laws, something Congress may not agree to. And the thousands of federal regulations mostly affect specific industries, making it harder to give relief to many businesses.

Republicans also talk about repealing the health care law. But that may not be something many business owners want.

The law has brought about good changes that should be retained, like ending health insurers' ability to deny coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, says Wade Benz, president of USimprints, a Brentwood, Tennessee, seller of promotional items and corporate gifts. He does want the next president to do something to lower insurance premiums.

The minimum wage is a tricky issue. Many workers want it, but small business owners like restaurant franchisees are against it, says Paul Oyer, a professor of economics at Stanford Business School. Republicans oppose raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour. Clinton supports it.

Presidential candidates may promise small business more than they'd be able to accomplish in office, says Primo, the University of Rochester professor.

"But I think this is true about a lot of policy areas," he says.

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