- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

Campaign finance reform may be the No. 1 issue in the Senate right now, but outside of Washington it does not even make the top-40 list of most important problems facing the country.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, with the help of favorable national news media coverage, has managed to drive the issue to the top of the Senate agenda this week ahead of education, health care, Medicare, Social Security, tax cuts and other issues that score much higher in poll after poll.

Polls shows that Americans strongly support the overall concept of campaign reform, but it does not appear on most lists of what concerns them the most, or if it does, comes in dead last.

"We've asked people what is the most important problem facing the country and watched campaign finance reform languish at the bottom of every list of 20 to 25 issues," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in Atlanta.

"Compared to other issues, campaign finance long has been in the basement of public priorities," the ABC News Web site said in an analysis earlier this week.

"Most people have more pressing concerns, and most doubt reform would effectively curb the role of money in politics," it concluded.

The Pew Research Center asked 1,513 adult Americans last month what is "the most important problem facing the country today." Campaign finance reform did not specifically appear among its list of 45 responses.

Morality/ethics/family values tops the list with 12 percent, followed by education (11 percent), the economy and jobs (13 percent), crime (8 percent), health care (6 percent), and energy costs (6 percent).

Other polls similarly place the issue at the bottom of the issue rankings. An ABC News poll taken in January ranked it 16th out of 18 issues. It was last among 16 issues in the general election.

Mr. McCain made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last year, but polls showed that most of those who supported him in the primaries did so for other reasons such as his patriotism and character not for his signature issue.

Only 9 percent of the voters in the New Hampshire primary said the issue was their biggest concern. There was even less concern on the Democratic side.

The issue all but disappeared in the general election. It was seldom raised by Al Gore, and George W. Bush, who opposes the McCain campaign finance reform bill, rarely mentioned the issue unless asked about it.

Asked how campaign finance reform was playing in Georgia, Mr. Ayres replied facetiously: "It's a burning issue. It's a topic that dominates every dinner table conversation. You can't go into a supermarket check-out line without hearing everyone talk about it."

In fact, Mr. Ayres says, "It's an elite, media-driven, editorial page issue that concerns" very few people. Virtually every poll seems to confirm that view.

When a Princeton Survey poll released earlier this month asked 1,200 people what should be Mr. Bush's top priorities this year, campaign finance reform barely registered at the bottom of the list with a minuscule 3 percent.

What were the top concerns of most people? Education (29 percent), the economy (20 percent), tax cuts (15 percent), Medicare, (14 percent), and Social Security (13 percent). Even foreign policy, at 4 percent, scored higher than campaign reform.

"People care more about how the taxpayers' money is being spent than about how the politicians are raising money for their campaigns," Mr. Ayres said.

The fact that the Senate is spending so much time on an issue they rate very low, or not at all, "just feeds the suspicion that Congress spends a lot of time on issues that people don't really care much about," he said.

"It doesn't show up as a high priority issue, not because people don't want reform, but because they don't believe that they are ever going to get it," said independent pollster John Zogby.

But for most Americans, Mr. Zogby conceded, "it's just not a passionate issue."

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