- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Americans often receive a very skewed picture of their country’s deepest concerns when the news is filtered through the nation’s capital.

All too often those with the loudest voices here get the most attention in the nightly news, though they are not necessarily what outrages people in what I like to call “the real world” outside the Washington Beltway.

Take, for example, the people in New Jersey where polls showed last month their biggest concerns, by a whopping 41 percent margin, were state and local taxes — dwarfing all other issues.

While major issues such as illegal immigrants, skyrocketing gas prices and the war in Iraq dominated the nightly news shows and took up much if not most of Congress’ attention, they were not what worried New Jersey voters the most. In fact, they were not even close.

What has got New Jersey really stirred up, almost to the point of an old-fashioned taxpayer rebellion, is Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s proposal to raise the sales tax from 6 to 7 percent, on top of rising property taxes that also are a major complaint among angry homeowners.

“When you ask people what’s bothering you, with the whole world of troubles to pick from and without any prompting, to draw 41 percent is a very big number,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, who polled 1,414 registered voters April 18-24.

Well, you might say, these are local issues that have little or no impact on the current national political crosscurrents. Not so. Both the sales tax increase and the state’s oppressive property taxes are becoming big issues in New Jersey’s U.S. Senate race where state Sen. Tom Kean, the Republican candidate, is focusing on nonfederal issues just like these. And it’s one of the reasons he is running even with Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez in the polls. “Kean knows President Bush isn’t popular in New Jersey, and so far he has decided to focus his campaign on local issues rather than sweeping national concerns,” John Fund reported in the Wall Street Journal last week.

What are New Jersey’s other top concerns? Immigration? Gas prices?

Far from it. Dishonest “politicians and corruption” are No. 2 at 8 percent, with the state’s budget deficit, education and the economy coming in third. Notably, gas prices drew 3 percent and immigration 1 percent.

In Michigan, where automotive layoffs have plunged its economy into a crisis, driving the unemployment rate to 6.8 percent, the biggest concern is jobs. “The economy and jobs is the No. 1 issue here by 40 percent or more. Every day it seems there is another plant closing and downsizing,” said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC/MRA. “This trumps everything.” The next closest issues in the open-ended survey are health care and education” and they poll in the teens.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, once one of her party’s stars, may be looking for a job, too, next year. She and Republican businessman Dick DeVos are now in a dead heat, says Mr. Sarpolus. “DeVos is no longer the underdog. The governor is the underdog,” he told me.

In Florida, education remains the overriding issue, drawing 24 percent in an open-ended survey, according to Quinnipiac’s Florida analyst Peter Brown. Immigration comes in second at 13 percent, but “that is double what it was in February. That’s a big change,” he said.

Notably, the economy, for which Mr. Bush scores high disapprovals nationally, draws only 10 percent in the poll of major concerns. As in New Jersey and other states, property taxes “are the dominant issue” in Pennsylvania, according to the polls there.

“They are excessive and they are skyrocketing,” said Leonardo Alcivar, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, challenger to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell who promised to do something about property taxes but didn’t. Polls show the race tied.

In Washington state, Republican Senate candidate Mike McGavick told me a month ago voters were asking him at town meetings about Iraq, the budget deficit and government spending. But that has since changed.

“Immigration and gas prices are the key topics right now when I meet voters,” he said. He thinks some of the change has to do with “what’s on the TV news lately.”

Still, the former business executive finds that his criticism of the intense partisanship, bickering and stalemate in Washington has struck a chord with voters who have a dismal view of Congress. He has moved to within 7 points of Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.

All this means a lot of different issues — quite often local not national issues — are driving the campaign debates in many states and will ultimately determine the outcome of this year’s elections.

An age-old political admonition says that “all politics is local.” Or, to put it another way, sometimes those hyperventilated stories that top the nightly network news aren’t what worry Americans most.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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