- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

The national debate over whether to go to war in Iraq is increasingly dominating the election and could influence its outcome in favor of the Republicans, campaign strategists said yesterday.
Democrats insist that congressional debate over a resolution of war, which could all but drown out their favored social welfare issues, will not hurt their prospects in the elections deciding which party will control Congress next year. But Democrats also say they want Congress to vote as soon as possible on the resolution so they can move on to their issues.
"The Democrats are clearly worried that Iraq and the war on terrorism will dominate the election debate rather than domestic issues that Democrats feel will favor them more," said Whitfield Ayres, a Republican campaign pollster based in Atlanta.
The debate "has clearly affected the perception of the Democrats. Why else would [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Daschle leave a meeting at the White House on Iraq on Wednesday and go to the floor of the Senate and rip the president on the economy?" Mr. Ayres said.
Republicans seem almost gleeful over the Democrats' predicament.
"You saw Daschle try and change the subject on Wednesday with that speech," said Jim Dyke, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
"There is no question that the focus on Iraq is beginning to be a major factor in the election," said William McInturff, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies.
The latest POS poll released Friday showed President Bush's job approval score at 70 percent and Republicans moving to a virtual dead heat, three-point advantage over the Democrats in the generic vote for Congress. Independent polls have shown similar numbers for Mr. Bush and the congressional elections.
"If I were the Democrats, I would begin looking at these numbers, and if the decision were to be made only on political grounds, that decision would be to very quickly vote on the use of force resolution and try to get the election back on the terrain on which they wanted to fight," Mr. McInturff said.
"It's clear that the national dialogue has shifted to national security on Iraq, and it's strengthening the president's standing," he said.
But Democratic campaign officials say that while the possibility of going to war in Iraq now dominates the national news, Democratic candidates are still emphasizing domestic issues like the economy, Social Security and prescription drugs in their campaigns back home.
"We still believe the outcome of the election is going to basically depend on what candidates run on, the domestic and economic issues they care about most," said Maria Cardona, the Democratic National Committee's spokeswoman.
"People are still incredibly worried about their economic security, their disappearing 401(k)s, prescription drugs, Social Security and jobs. These will be first and foremost the issues that will dominate people's decisions on Nov. 5, regardless of whether Iraq is on the front pages of the national newspapers," she said.
"Of course, Republicans want to think that Iraq is going to dominate the debate because [White House political adviser] Karl Rove thinks that the more you politicize that issue, the better it will be for them," she said.
Nevertheless, she acknowledged that if the question of going to war against Iraq "dominates the legislative calendar [for several weeks], it's hard from a legislative standpoint to focus on [Democratic] issues."
But Democratic leaders have clearly been influenced by poll numbers that seem to favor Republicans more as Mr. Bush and his advisers have pressed their case to use the military against Saddam Hussein.
A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday found that a 52 percent majority now believes that "Bush has explained clearly what's at stake for the United States in Iraq." Only 37 percent said that a month ago.
More importantly, more Americans are thinking about the prospects of war in Iraq 56 percent now versus 46 percent last month. "Six in 10 [64 percent] favor military action against Iraq," the Pew report said.
Significantly, a USA Today poll last week found that 58 percent of women who usually tend to vote more for Democrats now support taking pre-emptive military action in Iraq.
Signs of public support for Mr. Bush's Iraq policy have forced a midcourse correction among Democrats in the past few weeks. Mr. Daschle, for example, who did not want to vote on a war resolution until after the elections, now supports a vote sometime before Congress adjourns in October.


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