LITTLETON, Colo. — The talk outside suburban Wal-Marts and along small-town Main Streets was about Russia's invasion of its neighbor, and which presidential candidate would handle it best.
In early August, people were talking gas prices. Last month it was the housing crisis. Next week, who knows?
Issues come and go this election year, passing like a blur through voters' psyches. The fleeting nature of their concerns is a vivid reminder why handicapping a November election in August is a largely futile exercise.
"It's a problem with this long campaign season. The election starts too early," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H.
"Candidates were responding a year ago to concerns about health care and Iraq, which last summer was still pretty bad. There were soft spots in the economy back then, but things were pretty stable. Fast-forward a year, now the candidates have to reposition themselves."
They have to do that almost daily.
When Barack Obama and John McCain visited swing states in the Midwest and West last month, gasoline prices were headed above $4 a gallon. McCain made energy the centerpiece of his town hall meetings, vowing to push for more offshore drilling and suspend the federal gasoline tax. Obama was quick to respond with his own detailed energy blueprint.
But over the last two weeks, with gasoline prices dropping and other events grabbing headlines, these same sorts of voters were discussing other matters.
Russia was briefly Topic A in Colorado, if only because it was impossible to walk into a bar or a barbershop early last week without seeing a television set screaming "Breaking News" in bright red under pictures of tanks and terror.
Megan Wilder sat in her Boulder office Tuesday and criticized President Bush.
"He's at the Olympics clowning around while all this is going on," she said. She thought McCain and Obama were "being pretty cautious," though she added, "In my mind, McCain can't do anything right."
Phyllis Cordova, a Walsenburg restaurant owner, figured that McCain was more experienced at military matters and likely to manage a conflict more effectively.
The invasion began Aug. 8, and by Wednesday, voters were beginning to turn to other issues. Russia still came up, but old favorites returned.
For some, Iraq remained a big deal, but in a different way. The war is still unpopular, and voters in Ohio, another key swing state, have been talking more about costs than lives lost.
"I believe in the war," said Rob Matney, a Gahanna, Ohio, real estate agent. He backs McCain, but said: "We need to cut our losses. We spent a lot of money. Let's get our guys out."
Jeff Castle, a Mount Perry, Ohio, iron worker, agreed, though he wasn't sure about McCain. "Originally, I was for getting rid of Saddam Hussein," he said. "I've come to the realization that we need to keep to ourselves."
The swings in voter chatter are a reminder that so far, the election isn't shaping up as a referendum or a mandate on any one item. Many voters, when they're asked what their most pressing concerns are, note that they've had the same worries for some time and mention a variety of subjects.
Eileen Schoenberger, a Littleton, Colo., stay-at-home mother, wants something done about illegal immigration.
"They need to go back home and become legal if they want to return. I'm paying now for them to have a lifestyle in this country that I'd like to have," she said as she stopped outside the massive Wal-Mart on a steamy August afternoon.
She wasn't crazy about the McCain or Obama positions. Both have supported paths to citizenship, though McCain recently has stressed making border enforcement the first priority.
Aaron Rose of Boulder had health care on his mind. Laid off recently from his job at a shoe-manufacturing plant, he wants some form of universal health care and sees Obama as coming closest to offering a program.
Dianne Shantz, who teaches nursing at Metropolitan State College of Denver, put all the issues together. "This election is about the whole package," she said. "I can't pick just one."
Dartmouth College's Fowler wasn't surprised by the voter mood.
In Iraq, she said, "Casualties are down. And the news media have fewer reporters there. The situation not only stopped hemorrhaging, it's gotten noticeably better.
"Once Iraq was off the front page, voters shift their priorities."
If there's an overarching issue, it's the economy, but even that has several angles that come and go in voters' minds: housing, prices, energy, credit, to name some of them.
But if there is a theme to this election, Michael Dimock, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, figured that it involves the economy.
"Issues like Russia are new, so they give the media and the political observers something to talk about," he said. "The economy is the one issue that continues as the dominant voter concern."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008