- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Democrats want the final five weeks of the elections to be about the economy, Social Security and other domestic concerns, but debate about war with Iraq threatens to effectively mute those issues and undercut their prospects in November.
With the Democratic Party divided over what to do about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and its leadership under growing internal criticism for not forging a clear foreign policy alternative to President Bush's war plans, Democrats head into the final month of the midterm elections without a unified national security agenda of their own.
"The Democrats are a party of bystanders, a party without a position on the issue that matters most," the liberal New Republic magazine said yesterday in a blistering critique of the Democrats' handling of the debate over Iraq's military regime.
"Today's polls may show the Democrats with an advantage on the domestic issues the public supposedly cares about most, but ultimately that advantage will not matter if the party is timid and irresponsible on questions of war and peace," the Democratic-leaning journal said.
The Democrats' political strategy from the beginning of the election cycle has been to run on the bread-and-butter domestic issues that appeal to their political base women, the elderly and minorities. There is no indication thus far, even with the rise of the war issue, that they intend to abandon that basic strategy at this late date in the election.
However, Democratic officials say they are spending more money on at least four Senate races in New Jersey, Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota that they are in danger of losing. The AFL-CIO and other Democratic allies are providing added manpower for phone banks, voter canvassing and get-out-the vote drives. Spending on TV ads by the party and other outside groups also is being accelerated.
Throughout the summer, the Democratic National Committee, organized labor and Democratic candidates have been running TV ads against Republicans in their states on the economy and other domestic issues that score strong responses from voters. Many of the ads have attacked Mr. Bush's plan to let workers invest a small part of their payroll taxes in the stock market, the failure to pass a plan for prescription-drug benefits, and the economy's anemia, which has triggered a sharp decline in the stock market, flattening 401(k) and other retirement plans.
Even though Mr. Bush's plans to go to war against Iraq to destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction have dominated newspaper and television news coverage and debate in Congress, Democrats say that has not affected their game plan back home.
"Democrats are certainly out there talking about these issues. We believe that the more our candidates focus on economic security concerns, the more voters will see that the Democratic Party reflects their concerns," said Maria Cardona, chief spokeswoman for the DNC. She said the party was not changing its basic strategy.
Democratic leaders have been struggling for months to find a way to get the campaign's focus back on economic issues, but thus far without success. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri delivered major speeches in the past week that focused in whole or in part on their party's domestic issues. But outside of Mr. Daschle's accusations that Mr. Bush was politically exploiting Iraq to divert attention from domestic problems, their general complaints received little media attention.
Their strategy now is to vote soon on a resolution approving the use of military force to disarm Iraq in the belief that the elections debate will return to their terrain. Mr. Daschle hopes that a vote can take place before mid-October. But political analysts say the war issue is unlikely to dissipate so easily.
"Unfortunately for the Democrats, passage of a war resolution won't automatically redirect attention back to domestic issues in general or the economic in particular. As long as military action is likely, war will be the top issue," said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

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