- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

The terrorist attacks on America have rearranged the major concerns of voters, with safety and security replacing education and the economy as the dominant issues on the political landscape, a House Republican leader said yesterday.
In an unusually candid message-strategy memo to his party, Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Republican Conference, told his colleagues that the terrorist attacks have caused voters to "reassess their priorities and it is changing their priorities."
"This shift in priorities has also translated into an historic shift among the public, leading millions of Americans who previously backed Republican or Democrat policies to rethink their priorities as well as which party they support," Mr. Watts said.
Armed with the results of a new poll for House Republicans by pollster David Winston to assess how their party is doing with voters, Mr. Watts told his colleagues that many voters were undecided about which party they will support next year and that the Republicans were sailing into uncharted waters in the months ahead.
Mr. Watts' memorandum, at least in the version that his office made available, did not reveal the generic polling numbers about which party the voters support more. But a Capitol Hill source said the latest Republican poll showed voters backing the GOP over Democrats by 39 percent to 34 percent.
"A month ago we were running behind the Democrats 40 percent to 46 percent," the source said.
Mr. Winston, who declined to give any head-to-head numbers on the generic party-support question, said that the number of undecided voters among independents went up dramatically.
"In the last survey we had 27 percent of independents who were undecided. In this survey 51 percent of independents were undecided. That's a huge shift that mirrors the uncertainty we're seeing out there," he said.
Mr. Watts' memorandum to his colleagues yesterday reflected that political uncertainty in the current wartime atmosphere that has gripped the nation's capital.
"For about 18 months, education and the economy were the dominant issues on the political landscape. No more.
People are much more focused on personal safety and security, including economic security," Mr. Watts said.
"Specifically on the economy, even though 52 percent think we are in a recession, people have been less inclined to complain about the economy," he said.
Mr. Watts said, "This shift in priorities is also impacting their view of politics fostering a fundamental rethinking of long-held beliefs and positions. The events of Sept. 11 have created a vastly different landscape in American public opinion, throwing previous assumptions about the American people out the door."
In some cases, security concerns for the country were seen to be reshaping voter views on key issues that had divided them in the months before the terrorist attacks.
For example, he said that in the debate over a national energy policy, "concerns about reducing our dependence on foreign oil trump misleading claims about the environmental impact of" drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Mr. Watts said the survey showed that "nonpartisanship, not bipartisanship, is a top priority for Americans," a departure from President Bush's view that Americans wanted Democrats and Republicans to compromise their differences.
But Mr. Watts said the challenge for Republicans in this new environment is "to balance the need for cooperation with the need to define who we are."
That kind of balancing act in message crafting was not going to be easy, he confessed to his colleagues. "Never has communications been so important and so difficult," he said.

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