Striking new polling numbers, just in from CNN:

I’’d like to know whether the following statement describes or does not describe the way you feel: “The present tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to the ordinary working man or woman.”

Describes: 68

Does not describe: 29

More than two thirds of Americans agree that the current tax system unfairly benefits the rich. What about the fabled “middle,” which is supposed to be turned off by such rhetoric? Well, independents agree with that statement, 67-28; moderates agree with it 68-25.

Even Republicans are evenly divided on it, 47-48.

Public support for this basic critique is echoed in poll after poll.

* A recent New York Times survey found that 55 percent of Americans, including 58 percent of independents, think the wealthy pay less than their fair share in taxes.

* A recent Post poll found that a majority (52-37) sees the unfairness of the economic system as a bigger problem in this country than overregulation. Independents agree, 50-39; moderates, 57-36.

Does this mean Obama’s argument is a political winner in the context of the presidential election? Not necessarily. It’s still unclear whether tax fairness will be a primary motivator of voters.

Republicans are working hard to separate public perceptions of tax fairness (where Republicans are clearly on defense) from public perceptions of the economy (where Obama and Dems may find themselves on the defensive), on the belief that if voters make their choice based only on the latter, they can win.

You can see this strategic goal everywhere. It’s why Republicans keep claiming the Buffett Rule “won’t create a single job.” It's why they keep claiming Obama is merely talking about inequality and tax unfairness to distract from his economic record. It’s why Mitt Romney keeps saying Obama is running a campaign based on “envy” and “class warfare” to divert public anger over joblessness, and why he contrasts that to his own plan to unshackle the private sector and shower everyone with opportunity and prosperity.

Obama’s response is that combatting inequality and tax unfairness are not just about basic morality, but are essential steps in promoting economic growth, and with it, opportunity and social mobility. The Obama argument is that the Romney/GOP position on taxes — their devotion to maintaining a tax system that’s rigged against the middle class — proves that they are neither fit nor inclined to pursue policies that will lead to broadly shared prosperity.

It remains to be seen how decisive tax fairness in and of itself will be in November. But the above numbers are a pretty clear indication that Republicans are losing the argument over taxes, even with — yup — the middle of the country. Which is why they’re urgently trying to disentangle the issue from the economy in the public mind.