Michael C. Bender
Bloomberg News

Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, two U.S. lawmakers eyeing presidential bids, are trying to reset the Republican message on income inequality, something other party members in Washington have struggled to do.

Rubio, a Florida senator, yesterday framed economic disparities as a moral issue, promoting measures to increase tax benefits for married couples and modify the earned income tax credit so that more of it goes to the single and childless poor. Ryan, a Wisconsin representative, unveiled today a plan that would consolidate safety-net programs with the aim of helping more Americans find jobs and escape poverty.

A third potential White House contender -- Senator Rand Paul -- is pitching his push to revise the criminal justice system as a jobs issue. The Kentucky Republican wants to downgrade certain non-violent crimes to misdemeanors from felonies to help ex-convicts find work -- a plan he says will help minorities. He’ll speak tomorrow to the National Urban League.

“This is the beginning of a discussion that will clearly emerge in 2015 and 2016,” said David Winston, president of the Winston Group, a Republican strategy firm in Washington. “There are real problems out there that people are facing, and we have to lay out the center-right solutions so people can support those.”

Republicans have lost four of the past six presidential elections, and their chances of reversing that trend depend on whether the party can reach beyond its base.

2012 Vote

White voters accounted for almost three-fourths of the U.S. electorate in 2012, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won a larger share of them -- 59 percent -- than any candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, exit polls showed.

President Barack Obama was re-elected because he won larger margins among minority voters: He was backed by more than 70 percent of Hispanic and Asian voters and 93 percent of African Americans.

Breaking down the vote by income disparity further shows the challenges Republicans face heading into 2016. In 2012, 60 percent of voters who earned less than $50,000 backed Obama.

Also, almost half of those casting ballots said tax rates should be raised on those earning $250,000 or more a year, and among those voters 70 percent backed Obama.

Economic Divide

One illustration of the U.S.’s economic divide is that the top 1 percent of earners received 95 percent of the income gains since the recession ended in 2009, according to a study released last September from Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Democrats have sought to stress this issue amid polls showing public support for their proposals to address it.

Obama has called income inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” as fellow Democrats in Congress have backed bills aimed at increasing the minimum wage and extending jobless benefits -- measures most Republican lawmakers have opposed.

Half of all adults say they’d be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports a minimum wage increase, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in March. A Quinnipiac University poll in January showed 58 percent of Americans backed extending unemployment benefits.

A Bloomberg National Poll released in June showed that 67 percent of voters said the gap between the rich and everyone else is getting bigger.

Rubio, Ryan and Paul are starting to hone their messages on economic issues as they ponder possible presidential campaigns.

Ryan Speech

Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, today detailed a new set of policies aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout the U.S. in a speech in Washington.

His plan would consolidate 11 federal programs into one “Opportunity Grant” for states. The grants would give states flexibility to spend the money, he said, while requiring contracts between assistance providers and recipients that outline “consequences” for missing benchmarks.

Ryan also backed a Republican plan to give judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent criminals, and another to expand the earned income tax credit for childless workers. Ryan said he’d double the credit to $1,005 and pay for it, in part, by eliminating subsidies to energy companies.

’Smartest Voices’

“We need to stop listening to the loudest voices in the room and start listening to the smartest voices in the room,” Ryan, 44, said at the American Enterprise Institute, a policy group that focuses on economic matters.

Rubio, in a 30-minute speech yesterday at Catholic University in Washington, sought to link the traditional Republican stance on family values to economic prosperity.

“Too often in modern politics, debates about our values have been viewed as either wedges to win elections or unnecessary distractions to be avoided,” he said. “But the truth is that the social and moral well-being of our people has a direct and consequential impact on their economic well- being.”

He said that leaders in both parties need to acknowledge that the main reasons “why so many people are struggling is because too many aren’t getting an education, too many aren’t working, too many aren’t getting married and too many are having children outside of marriage.”

Gay Marriage

Rubio, 43, reiterated his opposition to gay marriage, a stance that polls show put him at odds with most voters. He made a nod toward those voters, saying that those who equate same-sex marriage bans with discrimination “pose a legitimate question for lawmakers and society.”

“I respect their arguments,” Rubio said.

Still, he said traditional marriage “deserves to be elevated in our laws.”

Paul has been focusing for more than a year on improving the Republican brand among minority voters, and he’ll continue that effort in his speech tomorrow in Cincinnati to the National Urban League, a New York City-based civil rights group.

He’ll use the speech to unveil a push for school choice, vouchers and charter schools, Paul said in an interview published today on Politico.com.

Paul has become a vocal supporter of restoring rights for some of those with past criminal convictions -- a top issue for many black leaders. Paul’s Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act would return voting rights to non-violent offenders.

Non-Violent Crimes

“Not only is voting a problem, but this is a big problem” when those who have served time seek employment, Paul said at a panel discussion on July 22 in Washington. “Why don’t we take some of these minor, non-violent crimes -- we’ve got a couple dozen of them, most of them are drug possession or sale -- and make them misdemeanors?”

Paul, 51, is working on legislation to revise federal drug laws to reduce the incarceration rate for non-violent offenders.

He’s also introduced a measure with Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, to limit the solitary confinement of minors, restore some felons’ eligibility for government benefits, and make it easier for people to clear their criminal records.

For Winston, the Republican consultant, these discussions will help the party make inroads in 2016.

“If the focus is not solutions, but why the other person is bad -- if you do what Mitt Romney did -- that’s not a satisfactory discourse for the electorate,” he said.