An election day much like before

Local issues trump concerns about security as voters go to the polls Tuesday to choose mayors and governors.

The attacks on Sept. 11 were supposed to change everything in America - even politics. Politicians were supposedly becoming more civil. The public was supposed to be consumed by concern over security and safety.

Yet as voters go to the polls tomorrow in several key races for governor and mayor around the nation, it's perhaps remarkable how "normal" the issues and candidates' behavior are turning out to be.

Gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey - and mayoral contests in Boston, Atlanta, and Miami - are full of pothole-and-pocketbook topics. Transportation, education, and taxes predominate over terrorism-related issues such as safety and security. And the candidates are slinging sometimes-nasty charges, not hewing to a new ethic of civility that many expected. Indeed, if these races are any measure, the changes wrought in US politics by the Sept. 11 attacks are entirely subtle.

If anything, they've nudged voters toward valuing the status quo over radical change - and toward practicality over partisanship. But overall, "The nature of the battles hasn't changed," says Scott Keeter, an analyst at George Mason University in Virginia.

Consider Mark Earley, the underdog Republican candidate in Virginia. One recent evening he stood virtually in the shadow of the Pentagon, less than half a mile from Virginia's "ground zero." Eagerly shaking hands with commuters near a subway stop, he came upon a woman named Gloria as she waited in line for her bus. "Are you going to fix this mess?" she blurted out.

"I sure am," Mr. Earley said, "although it may take a while." The "mess" she referred to? Transportation. "It takes me 40 minutes to an hour to get home." Any other issues she's concerned about? "The car-tax cut. They've got to get on top of that."

In fact, during an hour of Earley's meeting and greeting voters, including many Pentagon workers, not one mentioned the terrorist attacks or security. People wanted to talk about teachers' salaries, or extending the subway line to Dulles airport.

Partly, this reflects voters' distinguishing between federal and state turf. Washington largely handles security and defense. States deal mostly with education, roads, etc. But governors and mayors do have a big role in homeland defense - commanding National Guard units, securing state and local facilities, responding to health crises, and more.

Indeed, since Sept. 11 Virginia's Earley has tried to play up Democratic rival Mark Warner's lack of government experience. "In times of crisis," says Earley, a former Virginia attorney general, the state needs "somebody as a governor who has experience, particularly in law enforcement and public safety."

But the argument doesn't seem to work. Polls show Earley trailing Mr. Warner, a millionaire businessman, by about 10 percent. Warner has built momentum by focusing on economic prosperity, even in the state's rural areas, and by promising to let northern Virginia residents vote on whether to raise transportation taxes.

"Economic concerns were a big issue before Sept. 11, and since then they've become even more important," says Warner spokeswoman Amanda Crumley.

The economy has dominated many races. This partly reflects the realities of politics, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Both parties are united about the war on terror," yet, political campaigns are "all about creating distinctions."

That's why in this year's races - and 2002 House, Senate, and governors' contests - "the economy will be more important than the war on terror," he says.

In New Jersey, one recent poll found 75 percent of voters not wanting candidates for governor to talk about protecting the state from terrorism. Issues such as the economy, crime, and abortion have dominated.

In the New York mayor's race, of course, protecting and rebuilding the city are major topics. Yet the economy features prominently, too. Atlanta's mayoral contest is focused on the ethical timbre of the candidates, following the scandal-plagued administration of Bill Campbell.

In Seattle, mayoral candidates are largely concerned with debating leadership style - consensus vs. confrontation. Of all places, Houston is among the most focused on security issues. Incumbent Mayor Lee Brown argues the city needs a strong leader in these times. He leads two challengers.

This year's big races have also been perhaps surprisingly vitriolic. In an Oct. 28 debate in New Jersey, the candidates angrily traded charges. Republican Bret Schundler pointed out that Democrat James McGreevey has a daughter from a previous marriage whom he seldom sees. During an abortion debate, Mr. Schundler used Mr. McGreevey's pregnant wife to illustrate his antiabortion views.

Yet Sept. 11 did have subtle effects, including on how voters perceive the partisan attacks. In Virginia, half of respondents in one poll said Earley was being "unfair" in accusing Warner of wanting to raise taxes.

Observers say that perception has hurt Earley. In general, after Sept. 11, and amid a new spirit of unity among Washington's elected politicians, candidates have to walk a fine line between defining themselves and polarizing, says Will Marshall, president of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. "Polarizers aren't going to prosper," he says.

Another subtle shift: a new emphasis on the status quo and experience. New Jersey's Mr. Schundler has been tagged as "romantic" or "too extreme," while McGreevey is seen as reflecting more business as usual. McGreevey is leading in polls.

GOP billionaire Michael Bloomberg in New York has suffered for seeming a dilettante, although he's closed the gap recently with long-time politician Mark Green, a Democrat. In the end, the relatively unaffected state of American politics may be a sign of a still-vibrant democracy. Says Mr. Sabato: "You don't save democracy by suppressing it."

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