Good News for Republicans?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 22, 2006

In Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar looks into the camera and declares: "These days, no matter how hard you work, the price of gas, college and health care is getting out of reach."

The answer, says the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, is to "bring a dose of Minnesota fairness to Washington."

In Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown, who is campaigning against Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, says his state's residents "work hard, they love their country, they play by the rules." But their jobs in "cars, steel and appliances" are being pushed overseas by unfair trade agreements.

The maneuvering this month for November's midterm elections is primarily about shaping the priorities that voters will carry with them to their polling places. Behind the speeches and the ads is a subtle war for position, an effort to prepare the ground for the campaign's final weeks.

The obvious battle is over whether voters on Nov. 7 will be thinking more about the violence in Iraq, which pushes them the Democrats' way, or about the broader war on terrorism.

In this skirmish, Republicans can chalk up modest but real gains. The Pew Research Center found that the proportion of voters who listed terrorism as the most important problem facing the country increased from 5 percent in May to 15 percent this month. Significantly, the share of independents who listed terrorism as the key issue rose from 5 percent to 13 percent.

The proportion of all voters listing Iraq as the most important problem went up, too, from 18 percent to 26 percent. Much of the increase was among Democrats -- 36 percent of them said Iraq was the central question. But among independents, there was virtually no change in the importance of Iraq, and the findings were similar for self-described moderates. The relative balance between terrorism and Iraq among less partisan and ideological voters has shifted in the Republicans' direction.

But the question that has received far less attention in Washington is the one joined by Klobuchar and Brown: How will voters see the economy?

Through July and August, Republicans were reeling from voter anger over what GOP pollster David Winston calls "the cost-of-living issue" dramatized every day at the pump. He uses "cost of living" instead of "inflation" because, while the formal inflation rate is relatively low, the costs important to families -- gas, health care and college tuition, as Klobuchar's ad suggests, plus housing -- have been rising.

"Over the summer, we would talk about good economic numbers -- and then people would go to the gas station," Winston says. Now falling gas prices reinforce the Republican message about economic improvement.

The GOP is still in trouble on the economy. The New York Times-CBS News poll published yesterday found that 36 percent of respondents thought the economy was getting worse, compared with 17 percent who saw it getting better.

But this is actually good news for Republicans, considering that in July the same poll found that only 12 percent saw the economy improving while 47 percent saw it declining. And in the Pew survey, the share of voters listing gas prices and the constellation of issues around energy as the country's most important problem fell from 14 percent in May to 7 percent this month.

Are these improvements in the political terrain for Republicans the beginning of a long-term shift, or are they primarily a coming home of Republican-leaning voters who were eventually going to get back to their party anyway?

Republican strategists such as Winston are simply relieved that after a very bad summer, there is at least some movement the GOP's way. Democrats concede Bush's gains in his own party but note that even after the president's recent political push on terrorism, independents are still inclined toward the Democrats. In the race for Congress, the Times-CBS poll gave Democrats a 15-point advantage, while a Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg survey, also published yesterday, put them ahead by 10. A margin of that sort at this point usually signals victory for the party running ahead.

The decisive question is whether Democrats can seize the initiative back from Bush in early October, after the Republican Congress returns home. Democrats plan to marry the themes of national and economic security -- think of their economic platform as a dose of Klobuchar and a dash of Brown -- and hope that splits among Republicans on torture, which were resolved only yesterday, will dampen GOP gains from the resurgence of the terrorism issue.

The paradox is that the survival chances of a Republican Party led by a former oilman from Texas will depend in large part on whether gas prices keep falling.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company