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A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS synonymous with lavish promises of tax cuts to come.

Taxes have always been a popular political topic. But ever since Walter Mondale carried only one state against President Reagan in 1984 after confessing he would raise taxes, peddling lower rates has become mandatory for all presidential candidates.President Clinton, ever a jump ahead of Bob Dole, is already out with some relatively modest tax-cut proposals targeted at the working poor and middle class.

Dole is being pushed by the Republican right wing inexorably toward some sort of massive tax break, even though he seems surprisingly reluctant. To outdo Clinton, Dole is expected to opt for something dramatic, like total reform of the system, or sweeping, like broad across-the board income tax cuts.

But the problem for Dole is to fashion a proposal that will be credible in an era when congressional Republicans have given a balanced budget their highest priority. To avoid increasing the deficits, the budget law now requires Congress to offset the revenue lost through lowered taxes with federal spending cuts or increased taxes elsewhere.

And that's the rub. The GOP crusade to balance the budget by slashing popular programs and reducing the rate of growth of Medicare and Social Security last year fell apart because voters were outraged. They demanded that those benefits be protected.

The new budget now making its way through a chastened Congress continues to trim spending but uses a scalpel instead of a meat ax, lays off Medicare and does not contain last year's proposed vast new tax breaks.

As a practical matter, the wisdom of tax-cutting is open to debate. Republican gospel holds that cutting taxes will stimulate the economy, encourage private investment over government programs and generate higher incomes and corporate profits. Die-hard supply-siders love this theory. But economists are divided and history is an unreliable guide.

Politically, however, it's no contest. When Ronald Reagan promised huge tax cuts, huge defense spending increases and a balanced budget, he claimed he could do all three simultaneously without program-cutting pain by merely eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse" in government spending. The result was the ballooning national debt.

Dole has always felt that balancing the federal budget and eliminating the vast interest payments is more important economically than huge new tax breaks. He is so committed to wiping out the deficits that one of his final acts as Senate majority leader will be to force a vote on a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, even though he concedes that it will not pass.

But he is also exploring various tax reforms that would reduce rates and simplify the system. Former rival Steve Forbes has urged Dole to adopt the flat tax idea that was central to Forbes' presidential campaign. House Ways and Means Chairman William Archer has long championed a tax on consumption rather than income.

Other concepts include repealing the tax increases shoved through Congress by President Clinton in 1993 or granting a 15 percent across-the-board income tax reduction.

But all these ideas mean a huge loss of revenue to the Treasury, in the hundreds of billions of dollars. How Dole would compensate for losses of such magnitude without increasing the deficits or tapping the entitlement programs voters love is a mystery.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, claiming Dole can both balance the budget and slash taxes, blithely said on "Meet the Press" that it could be done by "fighting wasteful Washington spending" and "shrinking the Washington bureaucracies. . . "

This is the same old baloney. Gingrich apparently learned nothing from the House political debacle last year.

Not even the federal government "wastes" the $113 billion a year that would be lost with, for instance, a 15 percent tax cut. Real programs benefiting real people would have to take a heavy hit to make up for that magnitude of lost revenue.

It would take raw courage, or stupidity, for Dole to admit that the obvious targets would be the big-money programs - Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education and the Pentagon. Each has a powerful constituency ready to defeat any politician who dares to attack the present system.

Gingrich's popularity went into the cellar after Democrats denounced his plans to balance the budget last year by slowing the growth of Medicare and setting up a rival private system so that Medicare would, as he said, "wither on the vine."

The Republicans offset their proposed tax cuts with new restraints on Medicare that would let costs fall behind the pace of inflation and the increasing needs of growing numbers of eligible elderly. Hiding behind semantic niceties, they insisted this wasn't a cut. They didn't fool anyone.

Dole's best shot may be to go for all-out reform of the tax system rather than tinker with the rates. A consumption tax or some version of a flat tax is such an untested concept he can fuzz up the numbers so he won't have to be specific about how he'd pay for it. Keeping it vague is disingenuous but probably the way to go.