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Focus of fall election shifts from economy to talk of war

WASHINGTON—Whether by design or coincidence, President Bush's drumbeat for war with Iraq has succeeded in dramatically changing the political landscape for this fall's midterm congressional elections in ways that could help his Republican Party.

War now overshadows the economy as the most urgent issue in the American mindset, and Americans tend to favor Republicans on questions of war. This is precisely the kind of environment that Bush's political strategist Karl Rove had in mind last January when he told Republicans they would be able to campaign on the issue of "winning the war" on terrorism.

"We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might, and thereby protecting America," Rove said back then.

But if Bush has transformed the political playing field, he has not yet guaranteed who will win. Talk of war with Iraq has not yet permeated most congressional campaigns. It hasn't eroded the narrow lead held by Democrats in nationwide polling. It still might give way to pocketbook issues that favor Democrats. And it could even backfire by feeding public anxiety and thus skepticism about the party in power.

"It's still a risky strategy for the president," said independent pollster John Zogby, discussing the domestic-political ramifications of Bush's Iraq campaign. "It works in the short term. Public discourse is dominated by talk of war. On war and homeland security, Republicans get higher marks from the public.

"But Americans are feeling insecure. If we get closer to war, it could make Americans feel less secure. And come October, the two-thirds of voters with retirement accounts are not going to feel any more secure when third-quarter reports come in.

Democrats trump on domestic issues, including the economy."

Public support for war against Iraq is not the same as enthusiasm for it. Zogby, now conducting a new poll, said he is finding Americans are almost evenly split between support and opposition for war with Iraq. And when pressed to weigh casualties—Americans or Iraqi civilians—a majority opposes war, he said.

"Conceptually, Americans will support a war to remove Saddam Hussein," Zogby said. "But America is split on the notion of war."

For now, talk of war is arguably good for Republicans and bad for Democrats. By forcing an election-season debate about war, Bush has dramatically pushed the subject ahead of the economy in the eyes of voters.

Asked which issue would be more important in influencing their vote, 49 percent of Americans say war with Iraq, while 42 percent say the economy, according to a new Gallup/CNN/USAToday poll released Thursday.

That was a stark turnaround from just three weeks ago, before Bush started aggressively making his case for confronting Iraq. Back then, after a summer of news about corporate scandal and a falling stock market, 57 percent had said the economy would be the major issue in their choices for Congress, while 34 percent said Iraq.

Americans favor Republicans over Democrats by 52 percent to 33 percent on handling war with Iraq, according to the new Gallup poll.

Democrats fear the relentless focus on Iraq in Congress and the national news media is hurting their chances in November. Democrats hope voters will blame Republicans for the weak economy, the federal budget deficit and stock market losses and will reward Democrats for promises of a new federal subsidy to pay for seniors' prescription drugs.

"I think it is time to address the most important problems the American people face, which are economic problems," House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said Thursday.

For all the noise about war with Iraq however, Democrats still hold a slight lead in nationwide polling about choices for Congress. One key reason is that most voters aren't seeing the war being debated in their local congressional campaigns. Absent any visible difference between their local Democrat and Republican candidates on war, voters are left to choose on other issues—unlike when they face war versus economy questions from pollsters.

"Right now, war is not an issue popping up in the districts," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps Republican candidates for the House of Representatives.

"The war has been added to the issue menu but it has not shoved aside domestic concerns," said Jim Jordan, a strategist at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which aides Democratic Senate campaigns. "The war as an issue has not yet shown itself to be a factor in any Senate race."

Ultimately, Democrats believe the voters' attention will shift back to the economy and domestic issues as soon as Congress votes to authorize war.

"We will have done our vote," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "The president will be responsible for playing out what he does at the U.N. Whatever mobilizing takes place, you're not going to see anything happen in Iraq until December, January, February, sometime later. We all know that. So there's not going to be an intense focus except on some of the diplomatic activity. And we will go back to the real issues."


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.