Democrats have been trying for months to steer the focus of the elections from terrorism to economic and retirement issues, and President Bush is giving them their wish during his final 13 days of barnstorming.
White House officials said they have become concerned that domestic issues are helping Democrats suddenly gain traction in a string of critical Senate races, and Bush is counterpunching by recalibrating his stump speech to emphasize jobs, prescription drugs and education.
Bush devoted his radio address last Saturday to new administration efforts to protect 401(k) retirement accounts. A Sunday night briefing about his plan to speed generic drugs to market was scheduled so hurriedly it was held during Game 2 of the World Series.
A senior administration official said concern about such issues is dominating individual campaigns in a way that national polls have not reflected. "These guys on the local level are running hard on the economy, and the president can help," the official said. "Some may call these Democratic issues, but we believe that having the president being forceful and taking action on these is a welcome contrast to the Democratic Senate," the official said.
Bush had begun heading that direction last week, but he solidified his new focus today with a trio of half-hour speeches during a three-state Southern swing. He lauded Republican plans for schools, jobs and "the quality of life for our seniors," before turning to his familiar warnings about the "cold-blooded killers" who "hide in caves."
"Let me talk about one other issue right quick, about domestic policy," Bush said this morning at a rally in Charlotte for Elizabeth Dole, who is running to replace retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) "I worry about the cost of health care, and I'm worried about the accessibility of health care."
The new talking point of White House officials is that they "welcome the debate on domestic issues," and they say they are eager to debunk the notion that Bush and his candidates were reluctant to tackle those subjects when presidential popularity and worries about war seemed to be carrying the day.
"We realize that fear sells," a senior GOP official said. "Scaring seniors over Social Security and pensions has worked for Democrats in the past, and we are vulnerable to those perceptions. The president has to be out there making the facts clear and his positions clear."
Democrats are trying to maintain the pressure by holding smaller counterevents to draw attention to unfavorable economic statistics in states Bush visits. "Is North Carolina Better Off?" was the headline on Democratic research asserting that 64,517 North Carolina workers "have become unemployed" under Bush. The party released similar figures at his later stops in Columbia, S.C., and here in Alabama. A White House aide responded that all three states have Democratic governors.
Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Bush's rhetoric today constituted a "clear acknowledgement by the political folks at the White House that these elections will have very little to do with the war."
Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster working in several House and Senate races, said voters' attention to the economy began rising as soon as Congress passed a resolution two weeks ago authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq. "This is changing the tight races," she said.
A nonpartisan pollster, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center for People and the Press, said Bush's new tack was smart, even though he appeared to be playing on the Democrats' field. "If the Republicans have a vulnerability, it's on the domestic agenda," he said. "So far, that vulnerability hasn't changed the national numbers, but if I was trying to inoculate myself as a Republican leader, I would talk about domestic issues, which are what the voters say is closest to them when asked to make up their own agenda. Voters thought there would be an economic recovery, and that issue has stayed on the table."
Inside the White House, aides have begun to fret aloud that the elections could turn in sudden and unpredictable ways. The White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, overseen by Bush senior adviser Karl C. Rove, tried to accentuate the positive today by issuing a new internal polling analysis concluding that voters trust Republicans to handle the war on terrorism, the situation with Iraq, and taxes.
Bush speaks to invitation-only audiences, and although his strategists are keen to showcase his concern about kitchen-table issues, his commander-in-chief lines still get much bigger cheers. Bush has taken to referring derisively to Iraq's president as "Mr. Saddam Hussein," and when he said in Charlotte this morning that Hussein "has gassed his own people," the crowd cheered.
Bush's Texas twang was more pronounced than usual today as he told his audiences how Laura Bush was preparing for Friday's visit to their ranch by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. "It's been raining, so she needs to sweep the porch, because the president of China is coming," he said in Charlotte, where he got such big laughs that he repeated it at the next two stops.