OMAHA, NEB., AND WASHINGTON — Feelings ran high when Nebraska congressional hopeful Jim Simon summoned a living room full of senior citizens to talk about the economy.
"If you could do anything to see that [former Enron chairman] Ken Lay goes to prison for the rest of his life, or maybe death by hanging, I'd vote for that," said the lady in the cardigan sweater set. "Or hard labor!" chimed in Doris Cutler.
Mr. Simon, a dotcom millionaire and the only Nebraska Democrat with even a long shot at a House seat, says that Omaha residents are "really feeling the negative effects of this economy." He and other Democrats wanted to ride such concerns to victory in the November elections. Instead, they found fall campaigns dominated by talk of war with Iraq.
But with a tough congressional vote on Iraq now out of the way, Democrats are hoping to turn the subject back to the domestic issues they expect to do well on, especially the slumping economy. With 21 days to the election and control of both the House and Senate on the line they hope it's not too late.
"Iraq has dominated the last month-and-a-half, and it has been tough to get the electorate focused on the economy," says Simon's campaign manager Adam Gouttierre.
"But since the congressional vote last week, we've been getting calls about pensions and the economy again. Luckily, we planned our debates in the last three weeks, so we'll be able to get back to the economy. And if people go in to the booth thinking about the economy, they'll vote for us," he adds.
Ever since Iraq emerged as an issue, campaign consultants have been urging Democrats in Congress to resolve the war debate quickly so it wouldn't suck the oxygen out of domestic issues in the campaign. Democracy Corps, a Democratic strategy group, circulated a memo advising Democrats how to argue their case (either for or against the war) "in a way that allows the election to move to domestic issues."
"It's been hard to get voters' attention, because [the war] drowns out other debates," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "People out in campaigns are surprised at the degree to which Democrats in Washington keep actively debating the war instead of getting it off the agenda. It's been a tension within our party."
Now it appears that Democrats in Washington are listening. Within hours of last week's lopsided votes in favor of a resolution to use military force in Iraq, Capitol Hill Democrats convened a summit to jumpstart a national debate on the economy.
"The president has focused the attention of Congress on matters affecting national security for some many months. That is important and deadly serious business," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, on Friday.
"But in addition to dealing with national security we have a responsibility to deal with economic security and so does this president," he added.
Democrats are hammering the Bush administration on its failure to come up with solutions to the nation's economic woes: The economy has lost more than 2 millions jobs since President Bush took office and the stock market has lost more than $4.5 trillion in value over the same period. Business investments and consumer confidence are down and federal budget deficits are soaring, Democrats say.
"Instead of turning his attention to the economy now that Congress has passed a resolution on Iraq, President Bush will spend three days [this] week and every day in the final two weeks before the election on the campaign trail, raising money for Republican candidates," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D). He called on the president, instead, to "join us in a bipartisan economic summit."
In response, Republicans point to stalled legislation that could help create jobs or increase economic security, including a pension bill, terrorism insurance, and a comprehensive energy bill. They also say that Democrats have not presented an economic recovery plan.
"The only prescription some offer for economic suffering is political rhetoric and finger-pointing. The Democrats' plan truly is a plan about nothing," said Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican conference.
But even getting to a slug-out on the economy will require nudging Iraq to the sidelines. That will not be easy, analysts say. After a weekend car bomb in the Indonesian resort island Bali, President Bush called for a stepped-up battle against terrorism. A sniper on the loose and Pentagon plans to gear up for war are also dominating news.
"My guess is that Iraq will be at the top of the headlines through November 7. No story trumps war," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who handicaps congressional races.
"For the past five weeks, it's been all Iraq all the time. Not much else is getting through in these campaigns," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.
But some Republicans, privately and publicly, also worry that three weeks is a long time in politics and that the Democrats may yet be able to change the subject to the economy.
"I think the president is going to have to focus on the economy," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska on Sunday. "I think this thing is starting to tilt very much the wrong way, at least in the perception of Americans, that the president is not paying attention."
"If voters vote on the economy alone, Republicans are in trouble," says Ms. Duffy.