Crises create a political whiplash

War on terrorism and financial malaise pull voters in different directions as parties try to capitalize on events.

The near-term political fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties may now depend on which issue – the war on terrorism or corporate malfeasance – dominates voter attention, and when.

For much of this year, Washington's response to the events of last Sept. 11 has been the capital's overarching issue, boosting President Bush's approval ratings and the electoral hopes of his party. But lately security has been trumped by economics, as the slumping stock market and corporate scandals have sent a shiver of worry through working Americans – uncertainty that in the past has typically benefited Democrats.

Now, as this fall's midterm elections approach and national politics intensify, voters are finding their attention pulled in both directions – at times on the same day. One minute, Mr. Bush is releasing his sweeping new plan for homeland security. The next, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is decrying "unmitigated greed," followed by the House passing legislation toughening penalties for corporate misdeeds.

Call it the "whiplash effect." Depending on the course of events, coming months may well play out as a kind of tug of war, with the two great parties that govern the nation competing to focus attention on the category of issue they feel benefits them more.

At stake is both control of Congress and all-important initial positioning for the presidential run of 2004.

"Ever since September, whenever it looked like we were getting back to focusing on domestic issues, something would happen ... that kept pulling us back [to the war on terrorism]," says Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst. Now, he says, "All this talk about the stock market and the economy ... has a chance to seriously overwhelm all the foreign policy and national security stuff."

Of course, midterm elections are often decided on the basis of local issues rather than national ones. But with Congress so narrowly divided, analysts say concerns about terrorism or the economy could swing the outcome of the election – depending on which issue emerges as dominant come November.

Democrats believe the stock market and corporate scandal will prove the more compelling issue. They feel that while the public is attuned to national security, voters trust the administration to deal with it and want Congress to fix mounting domestic problems.

In addition, Democrats say they have agreed with the president on most aspects of the terrorism war, and so voters may not see much difference between the parties on that front. "Why is a voter in Carbondale, Ill., going to hire or fire their congressperson based on homeland security?" says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "They don't expect to be a target. They've never met a terrorist. But they have lost 40 percent of their 401(k)s, they may have lost their job, they may have lost healthcare benefits."

Yet while recent polls give the Democrats a slight edge on dealing with corporate scandal, voters may wind up seeing little difference between the parties there as well, since the Senate unanimously passed its reform bill this week, and the House passed an even tougher measure punishing corporate wrongdoing.

Moreover, analysts agree, any focus on homeland security at all could work to the GOP's advantage – if only because it takes attention away from domestic issues, which in the past have been the predominant concern of midterm elections and where Democrats tend to be stronger. "The reemergence of foreign affairs is clearly something that is new, that people are incorporating into their overall [decisionmaking] process in terms of whom they will vote for," says David Winston, a GOP pollster. "The underlying value of personal security and safety is something that's associated with the Republican Party, and so that context is helpful to Republicans."

Both parties will undoubtedly try to wrest public attention onto the topic that favors them, through hearings and legislation in Congress, as well as rhetoric on the campaign trail. Yet, ultimately, whichever issue holds sway could depend largely on external events, most of them outside either party's control. In the weeks ahead, a number of developments could keep voters focused on the economy:

• More corporate accounting scandals may emerge, as the chief executives of hundreds of companies meet an August deadline for recertifying their 2001 financial reports.

• The probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission into Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton, could lead to politically damaging findings.

• Depending on the behavior of the stock market, voters may open their next 401(k) statements to find their retirement savings have shrunk even further.

On the other hand, the war on terror could also reassert itself at any moment, with possible occurrences such as:

• The nation experiences another terrorist attack. Attorney General John Ashcroft has warned of possible sleeper cells in US cities.

• There could be a significant win in the war on terror – such as the capture of Osama bin Laden or other top Al Qaeda leaders.

Aside from all these hypotheticals, terrorism will become a major focus in September. "The anniversary of Sept. 11 is right smack dab in the time that all these candidates will be going up on the air," says Ms. Lake. "It's going to be very interesting [to see] how long the distraction occupies people."

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