When President Clinton traveled to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., last month, he lashed out at Republicans for what he said was "short-cutting the future" by cutting $10 billion in loans for college students.
"Do not be fooled by the smoke screen of balancing the budget," Mr. Clinton said. "We don't have to cut education to balance the budget. We don't have to and we shouldn't."
The Democrats haven't let up since -- taking to the floor of the Congress for speeches, sending letters to newspapers and whipping up protests at colleges.
"This is the big lie on campus," said John Czwartacki, spokesman for the House Republican Conference, a group of all Republican members of the House of Representatives. "They have literally lied to students and their families about what Republicans are trying to do."
The House of Representatives today is scheduled to vote on a budget reconciliation bill that includes provisions for student loans. Even after a budget is passed -- its current incarnations have drawn threats of a White House veto -- aides to Mr. Clinton said he would press the issue of cuts in student loans.
Democratic officials said they believe they've found a winning issue in student loans. Republicans, they tell middle-class voters, are stripping you of the chance to be financially secure and upwardly mobile.
"It's a serious family budget issue," said Ann Lewis, director of communications for the Clinton-Gore 1996 re-election campaign. "When we talk about values, it is a classic example, and one the president will often refer to."
The Republicans are gearing up for a fight.
"You have to take it seriously when the president uses the bully pulpit," said Mr. Czwartacki. "They have chosen this individual .. demographic group -- struggling students and their families -- because [students] are the most vulnerable to these kinds of attacks, they've targeted them."
Polls suggest Mr. Clinton and the Democrats are scoring major points with many voters, even among conservatives, in attacking proposed reductions in the rate of growth of funding for Medicare, a middle-class entitlement that subsidizes health care for 37 million Americans over age 65.
"With the student loans, I see the same type of thing," said Dick Bennett, head of the American Research Group. The Manchester, N.H.-based outfit does polling in the Granite State and is not affiliated with any candidate or party. "What people want is for the government to provide opportunities. When those types of things are threatened, it works against Republicans."
Moderate Republicans have argued against significant cutbacks, and even conservatives have stepped back from some of the more severe proposals bandied around some months ago.
Yet Republicans are pressing ahead. They have the votes, and they believe the larger goal of balancing the budget has such widespread support that it will overcome any reservations about cutting student loans.
Approximately 3.3 million undergraduates and 473,000 graduate students -- about 18 percent of all such students -- are receiving federally subsidized loans this year, according to Education Department figures.
Statistics from 1992, the most recent available, indicate that more than 50 percent of those subsidized loans go to students from families with annual incomes of less than $17,000. But they are also awarded to many students whose families have significantly higher incomes who are attending some of the nation's most expensive campuses, where costs can exceed $25,000 a year.
Politics, perhaps not surprisingly, has invaded even arguments over the statistics, so the two parties sharply disagree on what dollar figure to ascribe to the cuts. (Democrats, for example, say having the government administer the college loans directly, rather than through banks and other middlemen, would save $6 billion over seven years. Republicans, backed by the banking lobby, say it would save nothing and cost an additional $1.5 billion.)
Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, say the overriding priority for today's young adults must be reducing the deficit, which will, they point out, ultimately lower the interest rates on all loans.
Yet that effect may not kick in for many years, and the proposed cut could add debt for college students or deter some people from attending college at all.
Paul Herrnson, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park, said it makes sense for Democrats seeking to score political points to portray the Republicans as the Grinches of Campusville.
"This is an issue where middle-class taxpayers are going to be hurt and they won't know about it until their kids go to college," Dr. Herrnson said. "It would be wise for Clinton and Democrats to point out that this program helps the middle class and helps people enter the middle class."
"I still have all my financial aid from college to pay off," said Shannon Bricknell, a 22-year-old, first-year law student at the University of Baltimore. "If it weren't for the funding, I wouldn't have been able to afford law school."