- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

The Democrats appear to be losing their strongest political issue of the 2002 elections the stagnant economy and, with it, their hopes of regaining full control of Congress.
Democratic leaders have relentlessly attacked President Bush and the Republicans for the weak economy that slipped into a recession last year, signaling it would be their major issue of the congressional campaigns.
But the economy is rebounding faster than expected, statistics released last week indicate, and some economists now say the economy is in a recovery.
This is the view of a range of pollsters, consultants and political analysts.
"Our guys are cautiously optimistic that things are on the mend," said Dirk Van Dongen, who heads the National Association of Wholesalers and Distributors.
Mr. Van Dongen led the business coalition that supported the administration's economic stimulus bill, which was killed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
"Those in the Democratic leadership are a little bit fit to be tied because they don't have any issues now that resonate outside of their constituency," he said.
Economists are forecasting a robust economic growth rate of 3 percent or more in the first quarter, after a stronger-than-expected 1.4 percent growth rate in the last three months of 2001 when the United States was recovering from the terrorist attacks. New factory orders, personal incomes, consumer spending, new home construction and stock market indexes are all up, in many cases significantly.
The Congressional Budget Office yesterday said modest tax revenue surpluses would likely replace deficits it had forecast for this year and next.
"If in the next couple of months there is a consensus that the economy is rebounding and the unemployment statistics start to drop, it would be really damaging to Democratic prospects in November," said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
"They can still run on other public policy issues, like the patient bill of rights and prescription drug benefits, but the real ace in the hole for the Democrats has been the economy and the possibility that voters will be angry and will turn on George Bush," Mr. Rothenberg said.
Mr. Rothenberg said he is not ready to say Republicans will make gains in the November elections.
According to a long historic record, the party that holds the White House usually loses seats in Congress in the midterm elections. The record is endangered by strong support for the president's handling of the war on terrorism and the improving economy.
"History and conventional wisdom will suggest that the president and his party will get a boost from an economic comeback, and it looks like that's what is happening," said pollster John Zogby. "If the economic upturn continues, it could potentially force the Democrats back to the drawing board."
The president's advisers have been studying the latest economic growth numbers and believe the recovery that was supposed to get fully underway by midyear has already begun. They credit Mr. Bush's tax cuts and the Federal Reserve's rate cuts for the faster turnaround.
Republican officials said one of the most politically significant economic numbers released last week showed that after-tax discretionary income jumped by 1.6 percent in January, partly the result of the second stage of the Bush tax cuts that took effect Jan. 1.
Republican campaign strategists, who could hardly conceal their glee, were cheering the latest economic news.
"While the economic news is good news for all Americans, I imagine that there is one place in America where the economic news wasn't greeted with a smile at Democratic headquarters," said Steve Schmidt, the chief spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for reaction to Mr. Schmidt's remarks.

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