- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2006

President Bush addressed voters’ biggest anxieties this week, particularly in battleground states, by refocusing the domestic agenda around pocketbook issues and U.S. global competitiveness, political pollsters and Republican officials say.

“These are the key domestic issues that voters are thinking about, and they want some action, so Bush was right to address them,” said independent pollster John Zogby.

Mr. Bush called on Congress in the State of the Union on Tuesday to address rising energy bills, mounting health care costs and education shortfalls in a high-tech world.

“These are issues that clearly reflect domestic needs that Americans are uneasy about,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican and chairman of the National Governors Association.

“This is not a speech where he laid forth lofty and idealistic visions, but tactical and specific reforms to address areas where [Republicans] must improve.”

Two other Republicans with national political ambitions — Sens. George Allen of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona — praised the speech as offering ways to control federal spending, a key conservative issue within the Republican Party.

Mr. Allen said he was “especially pleased” with Mr. Bush’s call for a line-item veto to make “the president accountable and able to eliminate frivolous, unaccountable spending.”

Mr. McCain said he was brought to his feet when the president took aim at “pork-barrel spending.”

Republicans, who are worried about the impact that Mr. Bush’s weakened job-approval ratings will have on closely contested races this fall, hope the new focus will help the party maintain control of Congress.

An increased level of economic uneasiness has appeared in voter surveys in states where both Democratic and Republican elected officials are vulnerable.

In Pennsylvania, for example, where the economy in the western part of the state is in a slump, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is running 10 points behind his Democratic challenger, while polls show Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell’s re-election numbers have fallen into the low to mid-40s.

Clay Richards of the Quinnipiac University poll said both races reflect voter angst over economic issues that Mr. Bush has raised.

“Yes, there is a war going on, but at this point it may not be serious enough as an issue to override bread-and-butter issues like gas prices and the cost of health insurance,” Mr. Richards said.

Manufacturing layoffs, partly the result of overseas competition, have hurt Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin, and Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in Ohio.

“Our polls show high anxiety in all the battleground states on these economic issues. Voters are concerned about keeping their jobs, keeping their health benefits, if they still have them,” Mr. Zogby said.

White House political adviser “Karl Rove did some good polling to pick these issues,” he said.

The speech won a 75 percent approval rating in a Gallup overnight poll, about the same as his 2004 address (76 percent), but less than last year’s 86 percent.

Others thought Mr. Bush hit discordant notes for conservatives on immigration by repeating his call for a guest-worker program.

Dick Bryce, an Arizona Republican Party consultant and conservative activist, said Mr. Bush “was weakest on illegal immigration. He could have set timetables for action and offered some innovative new strategies.”

He said the talk in his state is of fences and “the use of the military to secure the border. Something bold needs to be done.”

Paul Chesser of the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina said Mr. Bush spent too much of the speech restating the case for the war on terror, which “isn’t where he is losing his base. It’s on protecting our borders. Either he has a blind spot about where the American people are on this issue, or he’s just firm on his own ideas.”

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