September 22, 2002
Domestic issues seen dominating elections
Iraq at forefront now but focus will shift to economy
By GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – To the dismay of Democrats, President Bush
has successfully pushed war and foreign policy back to the top of
the national agenda just when the opposition party thought it
had managed to focus the political debate on the more friendly
issues of corporate corruption and the economy.
In the days since Bush demanded that both the United Nations
and Congress give him a free hand to use military force against
Iraq, Republican candidates in several key races have moved
aggressively to put their Democratic opponents on the defensive
over the issue.
The immediate result has been boosts in the poll standings of
those Republicans and the president. But with six weeks to go
before the congressional elections, the GOP uptick may be
"I'm betting on domestic issues coming back strong," said Larry
Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"Iraq will still be on the front page, but it will be a split headline."
When swing voters start paying attention to the election, he said,
it will be weeks after the House and Senate have pledged their
support for Bush's military plans – assuming the debate there
proceeds as expected.
For Republicans, a return to domestic issues will be
disappointing since all polls show Democratic advantages on
those issues and GOP advantages on anything involving the war
"In politics, you can delay the day of reckoning, but you cannot
eliminate the day of reckoning," Sabato said. "If the stock market
continues tanking and people get really lousy third-quarter
statements on their 401(k)s in mid-October, it's going to have
some political effect in November."
The Democrats plan large media events to coincide with the
mailing of those third-quarter investment statements as well as
with the announcement of unemployment numbers in the first
weeks of October and November.
"Democrats – our candidates, our state parties, our grass-roots
organizations all over the country – are going to use the next 49
days to highlight economic issues," Democratic National
Chairman Terry McAuliffe said last week.
"We're going to get a resolution (on Iraq) very quickly and then
we're going to go back and focus on these other issues as we go
into Nov. 5," he said.
But Republicans will try to drag out the Iraq debate as long as
possible and remind voters in key states like South Dakota,
Minnesota and Georgia that Democratic Senate candidates were
wrong when they opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has lashed out at
anyone accusing the White House of letting politics enter into its
calculations on Iraq, calling that suggestion "reprehensible."
But White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has all but
acknowledged that the timing of the current debate was not
accidental, stating recently that, "from a marketing point of
view, you don't introduce new products in August."
W ith the vote expected soon and with almost no chance that
military operations could begin in Iraq until early next year, the
Iraq debate itself may seem like a dated product by November,
leaving most races to be fought over domestic issues.
That development, only a year after predictions that Sept. 11
would forever alter U.S. politics, is also remarkable.
"Despite what an incredible event 9/11 was, it hasn't truly
transformed American politics," said Marshall Wittmann, a
political analyst at the Hudson Institute. "We find ourselves a
year later with more or less business as usual."
Veteran congressional analyst Norman Ornstein of the American
Enterprise Institute said that even a terrorist attack "didn't
"We still have a set of elections that are enormously
consequential and extremely unusual because both houses are
up for grabs," he said. "Sept. 11 and the aftermath did not turn
Democrats or independents into Republicans, or independents
and Republicans into Democrats. We're still a country at parity
between the two parties at almost every level."
At the White House, Card hailed the return of politics as a sign of
the country's resiliency.
"It's election season," he said in an interview. "Now is when
people try to define the choices with harder lines. If we were not
entering a period of political debate, our democracy would not
Some subtle changes in politics can be discerned, though. For
one, voters seem to be turning their backs on the more
controversial or colorful candidates. In Georgia, Democratic
Rep. Cynthia McKinney and Republican Rep. Bob Barr were
ousted in primaries; in New Hampshire, brash Republican Bob
Smith was the only Senate incumbent to lose a primary; and in
New York, the more outspoken Andrew Cuomo was forced out of
the Democratic fight for the gubernatorial nomination.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said: "In times of
uncertainty, people reject controversy or even embarrassment.
. . . Controversial, colorful characters who bring attention to
themselves at a time when the nation is trying to call attention to
its national woes are very out of vogue."
Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.