Union Tribune

May 3, 2003

Democrats are happy to discuss jobs, not the war


COLUMBIA, S.C. With the nation's unemployment lines lengthening, Democratic presidential candidates are beginning to see the political playing field shift away from war to something they would rather talk about: the economy.

In their first full debate of the 2004 campaign, the Democrats tonight are certain to focus on President Bush's handling of the economy in hopes of dimming some of the luster from his Reagansque performance Thursday night aboard a San Diego-bound aircraft carrier.

The economy is quickly becoming a central focus for the president as well. Less than 24 hours after he was treated like a conquering hero by the crew of the Abraham Lincoln, Bush made a pre-emptive strike yesterday in the economically ravaged Silicon Valley, where he billed his controversial tax-cut plan as a "jobs package."

To be sure, the nine Democratic candidates gathered here are likely to exhibit sharp differences among themselves in an effort to break away from the crowded field. It runs the spectrum from high-profile, well-funded members of Congress to essentially niche candidates.

But many political analysts say the candidates also are expected to try to narrow a stature gap between themselves and a commander in chief who just prosecuted a successful war.

"Three magic words: change the subject," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "They can't compete with a commander in chief and they shouldn't even try."

Events may have conspired to help them in that task.

Bush declared victory in Iraq in a nationally televised address at sunset Thursday. By sunrise, some of the big news of the day came not from the Department of Defense, but the Labor Department, which reported the unemployment rate at 6 percent, an eight-year high.

More than half a million jobs had disappeared over the past three months, the department reported.

Apparently mindful of the political dangers inherent in a shrinking work force, Bush yesterday contended that his $550 billon, 10-year tax cut plan would provide the needed tonic to reverse a slump that has crippled the nation's high-technology sector, once the country's economic pacesetter.

Though much of the economic focus in Silicon Valley is on the region's battered technology industry, Bush chose to make his remarks at United Defense Industries, a thriving defense contractor that developed the Bradley fighting vehicle used in Iraq.

Bush said his tax cuts would eventually create more than a million new jobs and asserted, "The best way to create growth is to let people keep more of their own money."

But his proposal, already scaled back from $726 billion, faces stiff opposition from Democrats and some moderate Senate Republicans.

The wartime president is riding high in public opinion polls, but those same surveys suggest weakness on domestic issues.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at University of Southern California, said that continuing sluggishness in the economy suggests "a real opportunity for the Democrats."

"It is clear George W. Bush is still very vulnerable on the economy and on jobs," she said. "That tends to be a Democratic issue."

But their task involves far more than simply exploiting voter concerns about the economy. Merely getting attention will be tough enough.

The debate will take place at 9 p.m. Eastern time. (A tape of the debate will be broadcast in San Diego on KGTV at about 2:10 a.m. tomorrow, according to the station and the ABC network.)

More significantly, U.S. military success is still fresh in the public's mind.

With victories in Afghanistan and Iraq serving merely as battles in an ongoing war on terrorism, Bush seems positioned to benefit from overarching voter concerns about national security.

And nobody expects the Bush campaign to let the images from Thursday's speech on the Lincoln fade away.

"That extraordinary photo op . . . will be played over and over and over again (until Election Day)," said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign against Bush in 2000. "In all my life and in all the campaigns I've worked on, I've never seen such a spectacular event. It was amazing. It was breathtaking."

The debate is expected to include Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut; former Sen. Carol Mosley Braun of Illinois; Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; Reps. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader.

Despite all the obstacles posed by challenging a popular wartime president, Democrats began gathering here in an upbeat mood.

Candidates and their managers agreed that the debate could be an opportunity to set a postwar agenda for the campaign.

It will also give the candidates a chance to audition for party activists in a state that may be crucial to deciding who wins the Democratic nomination next year.

As the primary calendar stands now, South Carolina will be the first Southern state to vote, on Feb. 3.

It has a large number of black voters and its Democratic voters are considered more moderate than those in the two states that start the race, Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I think as the national focus on the Gulf War diminishes, this debate comes at the right time," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian.

Democrats, of course, hope for a similar dynamic to 1992.

That's when Bush's father, fresh from a triumph in the first war, lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton in the face of a sick economy.

But, given the ongoing nature of the terrorist threat, few experts expect history to repeat itself next year.

"As of now national security continues to trump economic concerns," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. "If the campaign is about who won Afghanistan and Iraq, then the Democrats don't have a chance."

Staff writerBill Ainsworth contributed to this report.