WASHINGTON – Democrats John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search) are gambling that there is enough lingering uneasiness about pocketbook issues that their message about a struggling economy and loss of jobs will resonate despite rising public optimism.
"It's the best issue they've got, especially in some of the swing states," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.
When it comes to voters' anxiety about the economy, this election year is a far cry from 1980, when Ronald Reagan (search) famously asked: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Nor does 2004 measure up to 1992, when Bill Clinton's team summed up the campaign's theme with the memorable phrase: "It's the economy, stupid."
Kerry and Edwards have a bigger selling job than Reagan had in 1980 when he defeated President Carter or Clinton had in 1992 when he beat the first President Bush.
In June 1980, three-fourths of Americans disapproved of Carter's handling of the economy at a time of rising inflation and little growth.
In June 1992, three-fourths disapproved of the elder Bush's economic performance when the economy was just starting to revive.
An AP-Ipsos poll this month found that voters were about evenly divided about the current president's handling of the economy, with 49 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving. Also, consumer confidence has been on the rise.
In a twist on the old Reagan question, those in the AP poll were asked: "Compared to four years ago, is your family's financial situation better today, worse today or about the same?"
Four in 10 respondents said better, 34 percent said the same and 26 percent said worse.
In July 1992, only one-quarter of Americans said they were doing better than four years earlier.
"By far, Kerry and Edwards have a harder case to make," said Marlin Fitzwater, a spokesman for Reagan and the elder Bush.
"In 1980, it was a successful argument for President Reagan because everybody in the country felt the weight of the failing economy on a daily basis. It was a truly fearsome reality to see how inflation was taking hold," Fitzwater said.
Should the economy continue to improve, it could complicate the Democrats' message of protecting jobs and reviving the economy.
"The economy's still a big issue," said Mark Zandi, an economist at Economy.com. "But it's diminishing as the economy continues to improve.
The improving jobs situation is a mixed bag for the administration, Zandi said. "The quality of job creation is relatively poor. The job market will continue to resonate as a political issue right up to the election," he said.
While more than 1.5 million jobs have been restored since the economy's low point, Zandi said, the total is still more than 1 million lower than when Bush took office.
Some people have lost jobs and found other jobs at much lower wages.
"I'm certainly not doing better," said Garry Holden, a 54-year old supervisor of a telemarketing company from Parma, Ohio. "I had to change jobs and got a lower-paying job with less satisfaction. I was a computer salesman. Now I'm supervising telemarketers."
Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said the Democrats' job is tougher now than it was for Clinton 12 years ago in the campaign.
"The one area where they can be effective with that message is the corridor from southern Michigan to Ohio to Western Pennsylvania to West Virginia," Buchanan said. "The jobs and trade issues could have resonance there."
For one Kerry strategist, the economy and jobs are effective campaign issues because many in the middle class have had to take lower-paying jobs and are paying more for health insurance, education and gasoline.
"When the president talks about the economy in glowing terms, it is a complete disconnect for those people," Tad Devine said. "Those people in the middle class are being squeezed by today's economy and that group probably will have a huge impact on the outcome of the election."