WASHINGTON – Many voters want President Bush to focus on the war against terrorism, but they want political candidates in their own states to talk about how they plan to deal with the economy and other domestic issues, a poll says.
Republicans are looking for help on foreign policy issues, while Democrats expect a boost from domestic ones. This tug-of-war for voters' attention could be key in deciding which party will control the Senate and House.
"It's Iraq that's the subject of top national interest,'' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "When you ask people about local and state elections, the focus is on the economy.''
As the House passed a resolution Thursday giving Bush authority to use force against Iraq, Democrats worked to turn the political debate back toward the economy.
"Every single person I talk to, without exception, even people in the media who have been out across the country, come back to report that the issue on the minds of most Americans is not Iraq but the state of the economy, the state of their pensions, the state of the unemployed,'' said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"I think that for the next four weeks there's going to be a lot of debate about the economy,'' predicted Daschle.
Republicans dismissed Democrats' claims that they — not GOP candidates — would benefit from an economic debate.
"They keep trying to find some way to change the subject because they don't want to talk about national security, homeland security or the job that they've done on the economy,'' said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott. "My question to them, once again, is, what is their plan? All they do is gripe and complain and whine and they don't have any alternatives.''
The public wants to hear more about the economy and domestic issues from candidates, according to the Pew Research Center poll. By a 2-to-1 margin, they named economic issues over national security issues when asked what candidates should be talking about.
The economy was mentioned most often, followed by education, jobs, dealing with terrorists and taxes. Iraq was further down the list.
When voters were asked which political party would do a better job dealing with the economy and requiring corporations to reform their business practices, Democrats had a slight edge. When people were asked which party would do a better job dealing with terrorists or Iraq, Republicans had a double-digit lead.
By all accounts, the contests for control of the Senate and House remain close.
"The president has been very skillful in changing the frame'' of the political debate, said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's not at all obvious that has had a profound effect on prospective behavior of voters.''
The public is divided on who would do a better job on the economy, though some analysts think a return to economic issues would tend to turn voters against the party in the White House.
Slightly more in the Pew poll, 45 percent, said Bush should focus more on the war on terrorism, while 36 percent said the economy.
Asking people to choose between the two issues is nearly impossible, said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "They're asking people to make an unrealistic choice. People are concerned about both.''
Bush administration officials talked Thursday of a troubled economy that is getting better. "We can characterize our situation as on the bumpy road to recovery,'' said Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
But on Capitol Hill all anyone was talking about was Iraq.
"The president has spoken ... about rebuilding Iraq's economy after our invasion,'' said House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi. "We have problems with our own economy. We must focus on building our own economy before we worry about Iraq's economy.''