- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Democrats plan to attack President Bush on the economy in the coming months in the hope that his postwar surge in the polls will plummet when voters refocus on job losses and weaker business activity.
With the end of the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein's regime, which all but wiped economic issues off the TV news shows, Democrat officials and strategists are urging their party's leaders and presidential candidates to focus almost completely on the sluggish economy.
"Bush's irresponsible tax plan, continued job losses, rising costs and diminishing hopes for a quick economic recovery have had a disastrous effect on our nation," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe told The Washington Times Tuesday.
"We have nine experienced presidential candidates blanketing the issues, and the economy is going to be at the forefront of these issues," Mr. McAuliffe said.
In campaign appearances before Democrat special interest groups, all of the candidates seeking the party's 2004 presidential nomination have sharply criticized Mr. Bush's economic policies. They have attacked him for the 2 million jobs lost since 2001, the sharp decline in the stock market, weakening growth and rising budget deficits that could near $400 billion next year.
"The whole purpose of my presidency will be to create jobs and get this economy moving," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic front-runner.
Victory in the Iraq war has given Mr. Bush 71 percent job-approval ratings, a level of support that would make him virtually unbeatable in 2004 if it holds up. But former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta thinks the nation's political focus will soon return to bread-and-butter issues on the economy and Mr. Bush's high poll numbers will fall back to Earth.
"The president and his advisers ought not to get too comfortable because I think the lesson of George W. Bush's father is still very real," Mr. Panetta said in an interview. Like his son, President George Bush also won a military victory over Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf war that sent his job-approval ratings soaring into the 1990s. Nearly two years later, however, he lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, largely as a result of a slumping economy and a 7 percent-plus unemployment rate.
"The principal focus for the Democrats right now should be on the primary weakness of the Republicans, which is the economy. That's a deep hole that the Republicans have handled badly," Mr. Panetta said.
Like Mr. Panetta, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile says that her party did not have a strong message on the war and related national security issues that they will need to repair. "But I think the party is going to come out of this war in good shape and will continue to address national security issues," she said.
"Of course, next year we won't be discussing the war. We'll be discussing this economy and why people can't find jobs," she said.
Hammered by a sharp decline in the stock market, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the corporate accounting scandals and economic uncertainty over the war in Iraq, the economy is in the third year of a persistent slump. Layoffs have been rising, unemployment is nearly 6 percent, the manufacturing sector is in a recession and economic growth has been anemic.
But Republican strategists said on Tuesday that the end of a successful war to depose Saddam's regime was yielding some economic dividends that could help Mr. Bush overcome the Democratic attacks, at least in the short term. Oil prices have been falling, giving the economy the equivalent of a tax cut. Stocks have begun to rally. Consumer confidence is rising and 62 percent of Americans now think the country is headed in the right direction, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Senior administration officials also note that unlike his father, Mr. Bush is making the economy and his stimulus package the major focus in the postwar period leading up to the 2004 elections. He and two dozen other administration officials have begun an aggressive offensive to promote his tax-cut stimulus plan. "They will be speaking for the president's plan at 57 events in 26 states in 40 cities" during the congressional recess, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
"The president is being seen working hard on the economy with a stimulus plan to create jobs and boost economic growth," an administration official said.

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