- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

Fresh evidence that the economy is slowing down and the jobless rate is creeping upward isn't the kind of economic news Vice President Al Gore wants to hear over the next five months.

The economy remains strong, but the unemployment rate inched up two-tenths of 1 percent in May to 4.1 percent. Political and economic strategists say that if the slowdown continues through the summer and fall, it could hurt the Democrat's presidential candidacy in November.

"Any time you have a slowdown in the economy, it always has an impact on the presidential race," said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan-based Democratic pollster. That impact is almost always on the party and candidates in power, he added.

"George W. Bush is the best beneficiary of this because he's an outsider. He's had no role to play in this economy. But Gore is seen as part of the administration," Mr. Sarpolus said.

The government's new economic data, released Friday, showed that factories lost 17,000 jobs last month, construction jobs fell by 29,000 and retail employment plunged by 67,000.

This follows earlier government reports that auto sales, new and existing home sales, orders for factory-made goods and overall retail sales are down, in some cases by significant margins.

At the same time, a new survey by independent pollster John Zogby shows that Mr. Bush, the presumed Republican Party nominee, is gaining support among union workers, a core constituency in the Democratic Party's base.

Mr. Zogby reported Friday that Mr. Gore's lead among union households has shrunk to only 7 points 46.8 percent to 39.8 percent. Union leaders say the vice president will need to carry at least 60 percent of the union vote to be successful in November.

Mr. Zogby's poll, conducted between May 29 and last Wednesday, found that the "economy, jobs and taxes" were the No. 2 concern of voters, just behind education and schools.

Until now, the economy, racing along at a 5.4 percent annualized rate in the first three months of this year, has not emerged as a major issue in the 2000 election cycle. But these latest economic numbers have spurred renewed concern for the issue among union officials and in Mr. Bush's campaign.

"We are concerned about these signs of falling auto sales and layoffs, and policy-makers ought to be concerned about these signs of a slowdown, too," said Paul Krell, chief spokesman for the United Auto Workers in Detroit.

The UAW has refused to endorse the vice president, and Mr. Krell sent Mr. Gore a clear signal Friday that he had better start talking about the economy and the latest signs of a slowdown if he wants to connect with union voters.

"We would like to hear the presidential candidates pay attention to that issue," Mr. Krell told The Washington Times.

The AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Mr. Bush, said they, too, were getting worried about the signs of an economic slowdown.

"Today's weak numbers in conjunction with the earlier weak economic data are cause for concern if it were to persist," said Tom Palley, assistant director for public policy for the labor federation.

"We're concerned that the Federal Reserve Board will slam on the brakes and throw the economy through the windshield," Mr. Palley said.

Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush's campaign spokesman, also jumped on the jobless data Friday, saying the Texas governor "has been watching the economic trends and is concerned about the strength of the economy long term."

"That's why he believes that tax relief is necessary to provide an insurance policy against any future economic downturn," Mr. Fleischer said.

Despite the strong economy, Mr. Gore has received little, if any, credit for it. But if the slowdown continues in the months to come, voters will tend to blame the administration in power, pollsters said.

"It's pretty hard for a vice president to be seen as the prime mover of good economic times. I doubt that a lot of voters directly attribute economic good times to Gore," said Richard Maullin, a partner in a Democratic campaign consulting and polling firm based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Mr. Maullin does not think the latest increase in the jobless rate will hurt Mr. Gore unless that figure increases substantially in the coming months.

"You'd have to see a pretty significant change in the unemployment picture before people really feel threatened," he said.

"My sense is that it will be a long time before a slowdown starts eating into the electorate and the core working force," he said.

However, Mr. Maullin doesn't think continued good economic times are necessarily good for Mr. Gore, either.

"Good times make it easier for Democrats not to worry and, therefore, not to cling to the party as a traditional defender of ordinary working people," he said. In good economic times, "traditional Democrats are comfortable enough to indulge in looking around and to be drawn to someone like Bush. And there is something in Bush's personality and presentation that is attractive enough to draw some of the people who voted for Clinton," he said.

"It's one explanation why Bush's polling numbers look good," he added.

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