WASHINGTON – President Bush's soaring popularity will figure into Republican political campaigns this fall, as will domestic and international security and the economy, but a GOP strategy memo has urged lawmakers to return to an issue where they gained ground last fall, and lost it again.
"Education is the issue that demands our greatest attention," the memo, distributed Tuesday, reads.
The election-year strategy comes one week after House and Senate Democrats unveiled their agenda for the 2002 election campaign, along with their new slogan "Securing America's Future," which Republicans accused Democrats of stealing.
In return, they are looking to steal away an issue from Democrats and have agreed that education will be their major theme for the 2002 election season.
"We're excited to go out and talk to people about the subject," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is retiring from the House this year.
Education has traditionally been a top voter concern and Democratic strength, and if it can be neutralized as an issue or even taken away by Republicans, it could decide the election, according to Dave Winston, a pollster for House and Senate Republicans.
"If we have a lead on that issue in terms of people's perception — who's best able to handle it — that will be a huge structural advantage to Republicans in the fall," Winston said.
To hear Armey, one might think Republicans have already won.
"The public has really, frankly, adopted the Republicans on education," he said.
But, in fact, the jury is still out. Education was traditionally a Democratic issue until President Bush co-opted it first as a candidate and then as president. Bush emphasized and eventually signed sweeping education reforms with the No Child Left Behind Act, a slogan taken directly from his campaign.
Since the bill was signed into law in January, little has been said about education, and polls now indicate the issue is up for grabs.
"It's a fundamental shift in the dynamic of politics in this country," Winston said. "I mean the fact that it was a base Democratic issue and now is a competitive issue is a huge shift."
Republicans worry that shift may not last. In May of 1999, Democrats led on education by a 29 to 50 margin. In January of this year, Republicans had pulled to a first-ever tie at 42 percent. But in the most recent poll, Republicans have fallen and Democrats lead again on the issue, by 45 percent to 37 percent.
The GOP strategy memo says the slippage is the GOP's own fault.
"Our slippage is not due to better Democrat proposals. We have slipped because we have not been talking about education."
GOP leaders have sent out the marching orders, among them: "Each committee from Armed Services to Appropriations needs to highlight their education accomplishments ... each member to conduct one education action item per week."
GOP lawmakers are also offering up more legislation to make their point, including tax credits to give more educational choices to low-income parents and students, to attract certain teachers, and to forgive some student loans.