- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

Republican campaign officials are urging their candidates to focus on local issues to blunt what they think is a sour national mood that could cut deeply into House and Senate majorities in the November elections.

In a strategic shift in response to generic congressional polls that show the Democrats lead the Republicans by 15 points among registered voters, the Republican campaign committees are falling back on an old election axiom: All politics is local. And they point to numerous races where their candidates have begun addressing more local issues — from sales-tax increases to overcrowded suburbs — issues that can spark more voter anger than some of the national issues Democrats would like the election to be about.

“We’re content to have the Democrats talk about the national atmosphere. We’re focused on local issues,” said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Brian Nick, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says this is the strategy in the Senate races, too.

“Winning on local issues is going to be the key to Republican success in November,” Mr. Nick said. He added that North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the NRSC chairman, “is definitely stressing to the candidates to run on local issues.”

The local-issue emphasis has been building for months in a number of races as poll after poll showed increasing voter disapproval of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Last week, Gallup said voter dissatisfaction has reached its highest level yet, finding that the Democrats led Republicans 54 percent to 39 percent in their generic polls. And for the first time since 1992, Gallup said “a majority of registered voters say that most members of Congress do not deserve re-election.”

But this is the first time that party officials have begun to talk openly about changing the focus of their campaign debate away from national issues, which Democrats say favor them, to local concerns that give the most vulnerable candidates a chance to shift attention away from tougher issues such as the war in Iraq, immigration, corruption and rising gas prices that have dominated congressional debate in Washington.

Among races where Republicans have been focusing on local issues:

• In New Jersey, Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. is opposing Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s proposed sales tax that has sparked a wave of voter anger.

• In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the most endangered incumbents, is opposing the use of tax dollars to build an arena in Pittsburgh and is fighting overdevelopment in the Philadelphia suburbs where residents have complained of urban sprawl.

• In West Virginia, a half-dozen Republicans vying to challenge Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, have centered the campaign debate on coal-mine safety in the aftermath of the Sago Mine disaster.

But Democratic campaign advisers say the Republican strategy will ultimately fail.

“There can no longer be any question whatsoever that the tide is running very strongly for the Democrats,” said Democratic campaign consultant Alan Secrest. “The Republicans will do their best to shift attention away from macro-issues to micro-issues.”

But even Democratic strategists acknowledge privately that congressional redistricting in 2000 has made it far more difficult to dislodge incumbents or for Democrats to win open seats previously held by Republicans.

“Anyone who says it’s over, that Republicans are going to lose the House, is premature, but all of the signs are encouraging for Democrats,” Mr. Secrest said.

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