As the economy hums along, many voters are turning their attention to other issues, such as "livability" and quality of life, according to a new survey of local and state leaders.
That means typically local issues--such as traffic, urban sprawl and preservation of open space--could play out on the national stage in the next year. Nonetheless, there are potential pitfalls for presidential candidates who either ignore or overemphasize the federal government's role in addressing these problems.
So far, only Vice President Gore has pushed the issue, with Republicans and his Democratic opponent, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, deriding him for his emphasis on an area typically left to local and state politicians.
In a survey for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 68 percent of state and local executives and policymakers said they believe concern over "livable communities" is growing. Nearly two-thirds said they were involved in initiatives that address ways to solve such issues as sprawl and congestion.
When asked whether the federal government should play a role in addressing these issues, 18 percent of state executives and local officials said no. However, 40 percent of state legislative officials said the federal government should have no role.
The AIA, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington, said it had briefed Gore and Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes on the survey, to be released Monday, and planned to meet with several other candidates. The AIA's message is that the public's concern over quality-of-life issues transcends partisan politics and should be addressed by both parties.
"We've made it abundantly clear that if [Republicans] are willing to cede this issue to the Democrats, they need to have their heads examined," said Jim Dinegar, vice president of government and industry affairs at the AIA.
In January, Gore announced a $10 billion bond program to help communities preserve open space, reduce traffic congestion, protect water quality and clean up abandoned industrial sites, launching one of the largest federal programs aimed at curbing sprawl. A few months later in Detroit, the vice president announced 47 relatively modest federal initiatives aimed at promoting what he calls "sustainable growth."
Gore has made the issue a cornerstone of his campaign. He and aides point to the fact that voters around the country have approved nearly 200 initiatives aimed at controlling or limiting sprawl and preserving open space.
"These results absolutely reinforce what the vice president has been saying for some time," said spokesman Alejandro Cabrera. "Building more livable communities is an important issue for Americans and their families."
But the AIA survey suggests that Gore could be vulnerable on the issue if he is perceived as going too far. Most state and local officials believe that the federal government should play a limited role, such as providing financing and promoting regional planning. Any candidate appearing to push overly intrusive federal government solutions could face a backlash.
Greg Mueller, a spokesman for Forbes, said Gore risks creating, or perhaps reinforcing, his image as a liberal who promotes the federal government as a solution to every problem.
"We're not saying that urban sprawl is not an issue, but that it's an issue best solved by the communities," Mueller said. "The idea that the man who invented the Internet can somehow, through the federal government, solve urban sprawl is Jay Leno material."
CAPTION: Vice President Gore tackled urban sprawl with a $10 billion bond program he unveiled in January.