BOSTON -- By most estimates, the cost of rescuing the nation's failed savings and loan institutions will fall heavily on taxpayers in the Northeast for years to come. Yet, to judge by this fall's political campaigns, the issue has yet to register with most of the region's voters.
Despite predictions of a sizable transfer of wealth from the Northeast, where only a handful of S&Ls have failed, to the Southwest, most voters in the Northeast appear to have more pressing concerns and most politicians appear willing to let the matter rest.
The S&L crisis, which was beginning to eclipse the federal budget crisis, has been overshadowed by the Middle East crisis.
"By itself, I don't think the S&L crisis is really on the top of the list," said Brad Bannon, a Boston-based pollster. "People aren't going to vote on S&Ls, but they will respond to the S&L crisis from a candidate who argues that the system is fouled up and not responsive."
Bannon said his polling this season indicates "an incredible level of hostility toward politicians in general and the system in general." But so far, he said, the S&L problem is not being used to help one party more than the other or to help challengers rather than incumbents.
Across the region, the paramount domestic issue is the economy, which has weakened dramatically in the last 18 months after a long boom during much of the 1980s. With unemployment rising, real estate prices falling and state governments running deficits, voter attention is focused predominantly on immediate economic problems.
A few office-seekers have attempted to link the region's economic problems to the S&L crisis, arguing that they are all symptoms of Reagan-era policies that favored the wealthy and the Southwest.
One such politician is Bernie Sanders, the socialist former mayor of Burlington running as an independent for the sole U.S. House seat in Vermont. In his campaign against Rep. Peter Smith (R), Sanders has pounded away at the S&L crisis and reminded voters that Smith's wealth was inherited from his father and grandfather, who were bankers.
Smith has fought back by trying to project himself as a leader in cleaning up the S&L mess. Despite his status as a congressional newcomer, Smith scored a coup in June when he called for a special prosecutor to investigate the industry's problems, a move joined by more than 100 members of Congress. "I think it's one of the strongest issues I've got going," Smith said.
Many political observers in the Northeast agree that the S&L issue could catch fire almost any time. They cite preliminary studies suggesting that it could cost about $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the Northeast to rescue the failed thrifts.
"It probably should be a big issue," Bannon said, "because the great problem is it will result in a massive flow of wealth from the Northeast to the Southwest, and no one is paying attention to it at all."
But the cleanup issue does not have much salience, compared to the deteriorating economy or the military confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
The crisis with Iraq not only has dominated the news, according to political insiders, but also has given President Bush temporary immunity from criticism. Some Democrats were ready to blame the S&L crisis on the Republican administration but pulled back after the president ordered U.S. troops into Saudi Arabia, according to several campaign operatives.
Observers said the S&L crisis has not caught on with voters in the Northeast for more practical reasons too. To the extent that voters are thinking about the issue, these analysts said, they consider it a problem for the federal government.
Also, there are few hotly contested House or Senate races in the Northeast. New York, Vermont and Connecticut have no Senate races, and only a few open House seats have drawn much interest.
As a result, many of the hottest races are for governor, an office not seen as having much to do with the national banking system.
In New York, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) has mentioned the S&L crisis just once, according to his staff. In a speech to the state Democratic convention in June, he differed with politicians who complain about the regional transfer of wealth, arguing instead that the nation is like a family that must help needy members.
Elsewhere in the region, the issue appears to be simmering. But as oil prices rise and New Englanders find themselves sending more and more money to Texas for gasoline and heating fuel, some political hands see the potential for a regional conflict.
"I don't think it's anywhere near the issue in Rhode Island that it is in the rest of the country," said Guy Dufault, Democratic State Committee chairman in Providence.
"I think what has outraged people in New England is they're talking about putting a tax on oil to bail out the Texans."