On Main Street, economy edges out Iraq

Some Republicans worry that voter anxiety could hurt them on Election Day.

While Washington is fixing on the prospect of war with Iraq, voters are getting more anxious about the economy – a shift that's worrisome to some GOP candidates in close races.

A new public-opinion poll, released yesterday, shows that the economy and jobs is now the No. 1 issue for voters in the Nov. 6 congressional elections.

The reasons? Exhibit A is the plunging stock market. The Nasdaq market hit a six-year low last week. But other factors are at work. Companies like phone giant SBC Communications continued to lay off workers. And consumer confidence has been ebbing.

Yet, you'd hardly know it by listening to the issue dominating Capitol Hill, where talk has of late been all Iraq, all the time.

Democrats, aware that economic concerns can work in their favor on Election Day, have tried to steer public discourse in the direction of the economy. But, like stubborn compass needle, the White House has managed to pull public attention consistently toward the confrontation with Saddam Hussein.

That appears likely to change as Nov. 5 draws near. Democrats are sure to play up economic issues. And now, some Republican backbenchers are concerned that they not appear to be ignoring key voter concerns.

"We're playing like a football team that had a good first-half lead, and now we're trying to run out the clock and play defense. We're hoping that a focus on the war will take us through the election, and I don't think it will," says Rep. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina.

For weeks, members on both sides of the aisle toed their leadership's line on how to deal with the economy. Republicans were to avoid talking about it. GOP political advisers have been telling members to keep the focus on national security and the war, where President Bush, as a popular commander in chief, has an edge.

Meanwhile, Democrats were being advised to avoid a showdown with the president over Iraq and get the discussion back to issues like healthcare and the economy, where Democrats have an advantage, even if it meant toning down doubts on the war.

The Democrats tried. Two weeks ago, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle announced that he would devote the week to refocusing the national debate on the economy. On Sept. 18, he released a 30-page attack on the Bush economic record, which noted the loss of more than 2 millions jobs, a $4.5 trillion plunge in stock market wealth, and an increase of $3.8 trillion to the national debt. It all barely registered in the national news media. At the same time, Mr. Daschle said he would bring up a vote to support use of force in Iraq before the Senate breaks in mid-October. "Otherwise, it will be all Iraq all the time," he said.

But that strategy cracked last week, when leading Democrats from former Vice President Al Gore to liberal icon Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts broke the near-silence and plunged into an attack on the president's strategy on Iraq. Daschle and others also charged that the president was using the war for political gain.

In the weekly Democratic radio address on Saturday, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey tried to get the party back on message. "The president rightly seeks to marshal our national resolve against the purveyors of hatred and violence who have made America their target," he said. "But shouldn't we be equally as vigilant about attacking the economic challenges we now face?"

In fact, GOP ratings have picked up, since the war talk began in earnest in September. Approval both for President Bush and Republicans in Congress jumped more than 5 points since August, according to a Harris poll last week.

Still, the economy has gained in voter priority in recent months, according to the poll released today by Zogby International. Some 22 percent of likely voters said it would be the most influential issue for them, versus 10 percent for terrorism and safety, 10 percent saying war against Iraq, and 10 percent saying taxes.

A Washington Post/ABC poll released Sunday, found a similar pattern – that 51 percent of Americans rate the economy as the nation's biggest problem, but 47 percent say that terrorism is most pressing.

"Whether or not there is any intention, the focus on national security issues, terrorism, and Iraq is surely helping President Bush and the Republicans. Cynics may attribute this to a deliberate political strategy.... If they are right, it is a successful one," concluded analysts at the Harris Poll in Rochester, N.Y.

The White House insists that Bush is not using war to avoid talking about the economy. "The president in virtually every speech he gives spends a significant part of time talking about the economy," says White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. Campaigning for GOP candidates in Flagstaff, Ariz., Friday, the president said: "I want you to know that I am constantly thinking about our economy and trying to work with Congress to improve the job base. But my most important job is to protect America...."

But what worries some Republican backbenchers in Congress is that any bounce the administration is getting from the war will not last through the elections, especially if the bad economic news continues. They also worry that the war focus is getting Republicans off the message that brought them to power in the Congress: smaller government and economic growth.

"I feel passionately that Republicans ought to be talking about the

economy and corporate greed," says Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who was one of the architects of the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. He and other conservative Republicans pressed the House leadership on this issue last week.

"Iraq may be enough [to win the November elections], but I think we're much better than just Iraq and the war on terrorism. They are critical issues but they are only part of what would be a whole solid set of reasons why people can support Republican candidates," says Mr. Hoekstra.

Other House Republicans who would not be quoted in this story say that their own leadership has yielded to the White House in focusing on national security. They say that most of the GOP caucus has come to see their job as implementing the White House vision. That could change if Republicans lose the House in the next Congress, some say.

Many Republicans are especially worried about the 401(k) and individual retirement account statements that will land in voter mailboxes just before the November vote. "Two-thirds of likely voters ... tell us they have 401(k)s or IRAs," says pollster John Zogby.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction in Republican ranks with the president's economic team continues to grow. "We should have people out there every day on the economy, every bit as strongly as [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld is on the war," says one GOP House member.

"The White House is betting that nothing is going to break on the economy that will hurt them," says Stan Collender, an economic analyst at Fleishman-Hillard Inc. in Washington. "If I were a Republican in a marginal district, I'd be worried."

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