In swing-state battle, economy is key

Coveted undecideds weigh their economic woes against the war on terror, and candidates strain for a precarious balance of the two.

For Roseann Zambito, there's only one issue that matters in the presidential race - and it's leading her to support Sen. John Kerry: "I'm here because I'm unemployed," she says, explaining why she waited hours in the sun to see the Massachusetts senator at a rally in Scranton, Pa. The former employee of Custom Seats Inc. lost her job in January and says she is about to lose her health insurance.

Ms. Zambito, while a Democrat, is no Bush-basher: She says she believes the president "tried to do something good" in Iraq. But she feels his priorities are misplaced: "In four years, all I heard was war. And I didn't work," she says bluntly.

For most Americans, campaign 2004 is all about national security. Even before this week's terrorist alerts, polls showed that most voters ranked Iraq and the war on terror as their top concerns. Last week's Democratic convention, heavy on military themes, only confirmed where the campaigns believe the focus lies.

But in the industrial heartland of the country - where the loss of manufacturing jobs continues to resonate - there's an ongoing tug of war between security and economic concerns that often tips more toward the latter. And where that balance ultimately falls may well determine which candidate wins in November.

Behind the war for the Rust Belt

Midwestern and industrial states typically rank among the nation's most critical battlegrounds, and this year is no different. Both campaigns are lavishing an enormous amount of attention on the region: In the past five days, both Senator Kerry and President Bush have traveled through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan, their motorcades practically passing on the highway at several points. Both men will be in Davenport, Iowa, Wednesday.

Analysts say what makes this region so electorally competitive is the large number of independent centrist voters who tend to eschew partisan politics and focus instead on basic, pocketbook concerns.

"It's middle America," says independent pollster Dick Bennett. "It's people who work hard and want their lives to improve and don't understand what the battles on the extreme left and extreme right have to do with sending their kids to school."

For many of these voters, Mr. Bennett says, gas prices are a far greater priority than freeing the Iraqi people.

"It's all about the hard economic times of people living on less," agrees Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolous. Still, he adds, that doesn't automatically give Kerry an edge: There's a strong vein of antitax sentiment running through these states, which often pushes voters toward the Republican Party.

They also have large populations of senior citizens, who tend to be more conservative on social issues, and large numbers of veterans. Patriotism resonates deeply here. "They believe in the flag," Mr. Sarpolous says of Midwestern voters. "They also believe in tradition and loyalty."

The balancing act candidates face in trying to meet these varying concerns can be seen in the differing priorities of Ms. Zambito and her fiancé, James Alichnie.

Mr. Alichnie is a Republican, and a veteran. He, too, has been out of work for months. But while the economy is a key concern, he says he's looking for a candidate who "has a little iron behind his words."

While Kerry's hawkish speech at the Democratic convention wasn't exactly what Zambito was looking for - "I think he could have talked more about the economy," she says - it appealed to Alichnie, who says Kerry now has his vote.

Campaigning throughout these states, both Kerry and Bush offer carefully calibrated pitches that strike this balance between security and the economy. But they differ in terms of where they put the heavier emphasis.

Striking a delicate balance

Certainly, Bush is trying to promote the recent positive economic indicators, telling voters that the country has "turned the corner." He's careful not to sound insensitive, telling a crowd in Canton, Ohio, that he knows the economy still "lags" in their part of the state. The solution, he argues, lies in tax cuts, less regulation, and restrictions on lawsuits.

But there's no question that Bush is running primarily as a wartime president - staking his claim to reelection on his ability to keep the country safe.

Kerry has made security a prominent part of his stump speech as well. But on the heels of his all-security-all-the-time convention, as he winds his way through the Midwest, what's striking is how much economic concerns - jobs, healthcare, trade - have returned to dominate his stump speech.

Tuesday, Kerry held a town-hall meeting on the economy in Beloit, Wis. Wednesday, he holds an "economic summit" in Davenport, Iowa.

Much of it is a reflection of his audience: For people living hundreds of miles from the coasts, terrorism is understandably more of an abstract concern than day-to-day economic struggles. One day after the terror-threat level was raised, a Kerry event at a firehouse in Grand Rapids, Mich., that was intended to focus on homeland security, generated far more questions about job loss.

A search for hope, if not perfection

Indeed, over and over, voters coming out to see Kerry speak cite the economy as their top concern.

At a rain-soaked rally in Greensburg, Pa., a traditionally Republican area that has been particularly hard hit, in a state that has lost 133,000 manufacturing jobs in the past eight years, Kerry mocked Bush's new slogan, saying: "The last time we had a president who talked about turning the corner was Herbert Hoover."

"I'm tired," says Joann Herrod, explaining her decision to support Kerry, after the rally ended. She was out of work for three years, doing temp work to make ends meet, and while she just got a job, it doesn't change her view of Bush.

"It just seemed like everything was going good until he got in office," she says. She doesn't think a change in presidents would necessarily solve the situation, she adds, But "it seems like Kerry has a vision - so at least there's hope."

Linda Feldmann contributed to this report from Washington.

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