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The Economy Primary

Workers take a lunch break recently at the Freedom Tower construction site in New York City. Construction is one of many industries struggling to cope with the recent economic downturn, which has builders looking for ways to cut spending.
Workers take a lunch break recently at the Freedom Tower construction site in New York City. Construction is one of many industries struggling to cope with the recent economic downturn, which has builders looking for ways to cut spending. (By Mark Lennihan -- Associated Press)
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By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 4, 2008

With the electorate increasingly focused on the nation's sagging economy, the fight for "economy voters" has become a central front in the battle for the GOP nomination. In nearly every early-voting state, the winner prevailed among those most concerned about the economy.

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More than half of those voting in Michigan's Republican primary called the economy the single most important issue facing the country. But the issue was considered tops not just in the economically hard-hit state, but also in Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In Iowa, one-fourth of GOP caucusgoers said it was their single biggest concern.

Only in South Carolina did the victor not carry economy voters. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who won the state, split economy voters with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who finished second.

Heading into Super Tuesday, a new Washington Post-ABC News national poll shows that concerns about the economy have gripped Republicans across the rest of the country. Asked an open-ended question about the presidential campaign, nearly four in 10 Republicans listed the economy and jobs as the election's top issue, about triple the number saying so in early September.

No GOP candidate has clearly established himself as the consensus leader on the economy. McCain holds a double-digit lead over his remaining rivals on the issue, but among the conservatives who make up the core of Republican primary voters, there is an even divide: 36 percent favor former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, 32 percent trust McCain more.

In follow-up interviews with poll respondents, ambivalence about the field of candidates and concern about the economy went hand in hand.

"No doubt right now it's the economy," Helen Sinclair Gaevert, a retired nurse and nursing professor from Seattle, said of her top concern. Most worrisome to her is the nation's escalating mortgage crisis. She knows people who have lost their homes because of bad loans, "and [they're] not poor people," she said.

She has been unimpressed by the answers McCain, Romney and Huckabee have provided. "I sincerely believe in the part of the Republican tenet that says that the government ought not to do anything for you that you can do yourself," she said. "I'm just not really wild over the candidates that are being presented."

Mark Barrett, of Orange County, Calif., expressed similar feelings. "I'm still on the fence," he said. "I'm going to wait until the last minute to make my decision."

His top two issues are the economy and national defense -- day-to-day issues, he called them. "McCain would be fine for national defense, but in terms of the economy, I think he would raise taxes," Barrett said. He thinks Romney would be good for the economy, but he is unsure about Romney's national security experience.

Barrett was most impressed with a candidate who recently dropped out of the race.

"Truth is, I liked Fred Thompson a lot," Barrett said. "In the debates, I liked what he had to say, I agreed with his issues, what he had to say in terms of national defense on Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and on the economy in cutting more taxes. Sadly, this time around that's just not it for the Republicans. We're not going to get the whole package."


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