Iraq Politics Stop at Edge of Voting Booth

Republican candidates want to capitalize on the positive numbers they have received for their handling of the war on terror and an impending conflict with Iraq, but they may find those issues aren't driving voters to the polls as they had expected.

According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken Oct. 8 and 9, 30 percent of likely voters surveyed said the economy was the most important issue deciding their vote. Following far behind was the issue of terrorism at 12 percent and Social Security at 11 percent.

That's unfortunate for Republicans, who poll 16 points higher, or 44 to 28 percent, than Democrats when it comes to best handling terror threats, according to an Oct. 10 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center.

In that same poll, Democrats were seen as slightly better at handling the economy, 41 to 37 percent.

But Republicans are certain that they have an election winner when it comes to national security, and have been taking their case onto the campaign trail.

For instance, Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia hit Democratic Sen. Max Cleland particularly hard on defense issues last week in a television ad that suggested Cleland wasn't tough on terror. The ad juxtaposed images of Al Qaeda terror chief Usama bin Laden with Cleland's votes against the Homeland Security Act currently under debate in the Senate.

"[The war on terror] is one of the top issues that voters are talking about," said his spokeswoman Michelle Hitt.

But Cleland supporters say the characterization is unfair, particularly since the first-term senator, who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, voted for a resolution supporting President Bush's use of force against Iraq if necessary.

And, adds Cleland spokeswoman Jamal Simmons, national security is not up for debate.

"We think that this is just his way of changing the issues away from what's important to Georgians," said Simmons. "People are concerned about [war and terrorism], but for the average Georgian, it's not a political issue."

But some say there must be some political strategizing in the war since Democrats, who are fighting to keep their one-seat majority in the Senate and pick up a handful of seats in order to take back the House, have been so quick to support the president's positions on Iraq and homeland security.

Even Cleland's office said his votes against homeland security were on labor issues and not the need for a new Cabinet agency to defend the homeland.

"The war and the recession are dominating the discourse in Missouri," said Rich Chrismer, spokesman for former Rep. Jim Talent, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan in another tightly contested Senate race.

Representatives for Carnahan, who also voted in support of the Iraq resolution, insist that "kitchen table" issues are what most people are talking about.

"Education, healthcare and jobs -- voters are focused on the issues here at home and that’s what Sen. Carnahan is paying attention to," said Carnahan spokesman Dan Leistikow.

But focusing on butter rather than guns may not necessarily be a winner either, say analysts.

"[Voters] have heard a lot about the war and Iraq, and it’s a subject they’re talking about with their friends and neighbors," said Karlyn Bowman, a political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute.

"It’s not necessarily the issue they’re taking to the polls with them," she added.

"The economic message, which is arguably what the Democrats are putting their hearts into, just isn’t catching on," said Brian Vargus, political science professor at Purdue University in Indianapolis, Ind. "But the war on terrorism isn’t really seen as a political issue ... so voters are terribly disengaged. We expect record low turnouts."

Voters, too, say the hot topic really depends on individual and local circumstances.

"The bread and butter on your own table is important, more so than what’s happening way out yonder," said Don Thompson, a farmer and local Democrat in rural Montgomery County, N.C., where the decline of the textile industry is a dark specter haunting many campaigns.

"When voters look at their representatives going to D.C., it’s all about how they are going to best represent New Hampshire by way of jobs, rather than their stance on the war on terrorism," said Paddy Roy, an independent voter in Alton Bay, N.H. Roy said all the talk from local, state and congressional candidates there has been on the declining property tax base and education funding.

However, some voters say that just because Iraq isn't on everyone's lips right now does not mean that war is unimportant to people’s lives.

"I know it’s in the back of everyone’s minds, that we are in a war," said Larry Pickard, a Republican from Maricopa County, Ariz. "It may be out of sight, but it’s not out of mind."