-- One week before the midterm elections, American voters are distracted, anxious and unsure, driven to vote -- or not -- by a laundry list of issues without an overriding theme. And neither Republicans nor Democrats appear to be favored.
Consider Harry Lewis, 55, an advertising account executive recently awaiting his flight home to Los Angeles while nursing a beer at the Seattle airport. "Why am I voting?" Lewis asks. "That is the question."
The economy? It's weak. The terrorists? They're scary. Cutting taxes? Sure. Going to war against Iraq? "Is that a good idea or a really dumb idea?" Lewis asked. "And even if I could figure that one out, who do I vote for?" An independent, Lewis said he honestly does not know which party is the best for these tumultuous times.
Lewis isn't alone, based on interviews with voters around the country and with strategists in both parties tracking the most competitive races. Living on a steady diet of negative ads this fall has dampened voters' interest in Tuesday's crucial balloting, which will determine control of the House, Senate and statehouses. As Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, put it, "Many voters would prefer to just call off these elections and come back in two years."
Over the last month, the electorate has been barraged by bewildering and frightening news about the Washington area sniper, the terrorist attack in Bali and the admission by North Korea that it is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. That and a looming war against Iraq. Then there is the long-running saga of the national economy and the swooning stock market, which has taken a brutal toll on many voters' retirement and investment plans.
"There are big events going on," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. But "for most people, there's barely an election." Another political operative compared the 2002 elections to "watching the grass grow." While there are certainly hard-fought congressional and state races, there is no group-think driving voters to the polls.
"This is an extraordinary environment," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "You keep waiting for a political breeze to blow through the electorate, even a slight breeze in the last weeks that might tilt this election one way or the other." Asked what issues were driving the electorate, Newhouse sighed and said, "Oh, man."
Harold Rodgers, 55, is a computer programmer from Lawrenceville, Ga. What will bring him to the ballot box? "The terrorists, the war on terrorism, the economy, tax relief and, I guess, the traffic in Atlanta."
Meaning: the laundry list.
On Iraq, Rodgers said, "I'm kind of in between on whether we really need to go to war, but I don't see it as a disaster if we go or not. I think it would hurt us more if we didn't go."
Rodgers also said, "If we're going into Iraq, what about North Korea?" He said he was not sure how well the United States was doing in the war on terrorism because "the terrorists can hide so well it's hard to judge."
The anxiety and uncertainty voiced by Rodgers was repeated at coffee shops, street corners, airport lounges and grocery stores around the country.
Most voters usually mention both the fight against terrorism and the sputtering economy. But they seem divided over what issue should matter most when they vote next week -- and what party can best fight the bad guys and fix the economy at the same time.
Mitch Adwon, a Republican real estate investor from Tulsa, said he believes that there is "confusion" among his fellow voters about what they should care about.
"I think the administration is spending time on the economy, but more time could be spent on it," Adwon said. He said he does not hold the Bush administration responsible for the nation's economic woes because "it was a natural downturn that was accentuated by the events of last year," meaning the terrorist attacks.
Adwon said it "doesn't matter" to him whether the Democrats or Republicans control Congress, but thinks the country would be at a slight advantage if the GOP won "because more would get done. I don't like the finger-pointing."
Wendy Brunner, 37, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health from Minneapolis, said, "The economy is the big thing. I think too much attention has been drawn away from the economy. I work for the state of Minnesota and we're facing budget cuts."
Brunner volunteered a reference to "warmongering with Iraq," adding, "I do think it's an attempt to draw attention from the economy, which has gone to pot."
Gerald Roberts, a retired auto parts salesman in Chicago, also said the economy -- not Iraq -- is the critical issue and said he would definitely vote Democrat. "His daddy should have taken care of this," Roberts said, referring to President Bush and his father, former president George H.W. Bush.
George Crisp of Austin has worked for the Internal Revenue Service since 1987 and is taking his fiscal sensibilities with him to the voting booth. Crisp, 60, is searching for a politician, Democrat or Republican, who will make the economy a top priority, but doesn't see any stellar candidates so far. "Everyone's for cutting taxes. I'm for fiscal responsibility," Crisp said. "Nobody I hear is saying let's leave the taxes alone."
Republican pollster Ed Goeas said the absence of a clear national theme has dampened voter interest in this election. He said that at this point in past elections, the percentage of registered voters who say they are "extremely likely" to vote is usually in the high seventies. Today, Goeas said, the percentage is in the mid-sixties.
But Goeas said he has detected something interesting about attitudes toward the economy. Normally the most "intense" voters are senior citizens in midterm elections. Now, voters between the ages of 40 and 59 are equally motivated.
Why? The economy: jobs, promotions, savings and the stock market. Among those middle-aged and in the stock market, Goeas said, the Republicans appear to have an edge, thereby minimizing the Democrats' opportunity to benefit from the corporate accountability scandals.
Democratic strategists believe the corporate scandals ultimately will help their candidates. But many voters did not list corporate scandal when ticking off their priorities.
Asked about the economy, Tony Dittmeier, 53, a planner with the Department of Transportation from Cumming, Ga., said, "It sucks, and everybody's retirement has been postponed indefinitely. Everybody's 401(k) is in the tank." But he added, "National security is the overriding concern." He said he will vote Republican.
Many voters appeared unconcerned about which party controls the Congress after the elections. Anti-incumbent fever is not raging. Bush's popularity remains high.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart recalled that in the 1982 midterm election, when the economy was in recession and unemployment hit 10 percent a month before the vote, the election became a choice between "whether we were going to stay the course or make a midcourse correction. This seems to be much more like many different points on the compass."
Glenda Femichel was poring over sheet music in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan the other day. "I can't say I'm enthusiastic about any election right now," she said. Then she confessed that she can't decide which is more frustrating, the current state of politics or mastering a piece by Franz Schubert.
"I'm voting because I feel I have to vote," she said, and she favors New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) in the upcoming election, because he appears better able to help rebuild in New York after Sept. 11, 2001.
But no local politician can alleviate her biggest fear, of another terrorist attack. "I feel very vulnerable. I don't think anyone knows how to deal with the issues of terrorism and homeland security," she said. "It's putting band-aids here. It's putting band-aids there. It's a cancer that metastasized out of control."
At a coffeehouse in the artsy Andersonville neighborhood on Chicago's North Side, Claire Kaplan, 33, a theater instructor, said she is concerned about war with Iraq, but doesn't know if voting will help express her opinions. "It's moving along without most people's consent already," she said.
Kim Paulus, a graduate student in family therapy, agreed. "I'm pretty upset about the invasion of Iraq but I don't know if voting will affect that," Paulus, 30, said. While she usually only votes in presidential elections, she said, she probably will vote this year. "With the war and the economy people will vote more," she said.
If her prediction turns out to be correct, it will be a surprise to many strategists, who are assuming that in most races, turnout will be low.
Of course, other issues did poke through concerns about terrorism, Iraq and the economy.
Darlene Beck, 45, a health care manager with a health insurance company from Harrisburg, said, "Because of Pennsylvania and its aging population, one of the big things on my mind is Social Security."
She specifically mentioned a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. "I think we need to do something," Beck said. "I just don't know what that is, because it's expensive. I don't know what the answer is. My parents are getting to retirement age and it's a big thing for them."
On Iraq, Beck said, "It's on my mind, but I guess it's not in the forefront of my mind. I don't support a war with Iraq." She said she will vote Democratic.
Voters in New Jersey have more reason than most to feel alienated this year. Their incumbent senator, Robert G. Torricelli (D), dropped out in the final five weeks in the face of plummeting support and persistent focus on his ethical lapses, replaced by retired three-term senator Frank R. Lautenberg.
Amid high awareness that control of the Senate will turn on this and a few other races, the frustration was palpable on a recent night among commuters and travelers arriving at Metro Park train station, in the sprawling, suburban center of the state.
"You hardly know the candidates," complained Jee Tendra, a computer programmer who said he doesn't know whom he'll vote for or how he'll decide.
"I just want our legislators to be honest and to do something," said Richard Zeller, a mortgage banker. Like many other Americans, Zeller is determined to vote, but still undecided.
Balz reported from Washington. Staff writers Jim VandeHei in Minneapolis, Dale Russakoff in New Jersey, Christine Haughney in New York, Edward Walsh in Georgia , Lois Romano in Tulsa and Helen Dewar in New Hampshire, and special correspondents Kari Lydersen in Chicago and Amanda Zamora in Austin, contributed to this report.