Republicans risk losing the economic debate in this year's election unless they shift their focus from trying to convince voters that the economy is improving and engage Democrats directly over how to create jobs and expand growth in the future, Republican governors were told here this weekend.
GOP pollster Bill McInturff, in a Saturday briefing for the Republican Governors Association, presented survey results showing that voters are far more responsive to Sen. John F. Kerry's economic message that talks about a middle-class squeeze than to President Bush's efforts to change public perceptions by talking up recent economic statistics.
Republicans have been hoping that, with improving economic statistics, Bush will gain politically, but GOP governors agreed with McInturff's conclusion that voters are not ready for such a message.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) said economies in many battleground states are improving but acknowledged that voters are not convinced the recovery is real. "People are still skeptical" about the economy, Owens said. "There's a long-term lag between perception and reality. . . . You can't run against that prevailing wisdom yourself."
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) said that economic conditions in his state have improved but that voters were reluctant to give Bush credit for the changes, saying they do not believe his tax cuts have helped them directly. "It's a very, very hard issue for the president to come into Wisconsin and explain what he has done to help us," he said.
Based on his research, McInturff said Republicans need a change in strategy. "You can't marshal national or state economic figures at the expense of talking about people's everyday concerns," he said Sunday. "That's a comparison that doesn't break in our direction."
McInturff presented his conclusions at the opening of the summer meeting of the National Governors Association, whose agenda this weekend included long-term care and homeland security. But with the Democratic National Convention a week away, Republican and Democratic governors used their early news conferences to score points against the other side in the election debate.
McInturff's research challenged the strategy employed by Bush this year while offering Republicans an alternative approach that he told the governors would produce more positive responses from voters.
Bush suffers from low approval ratings on the economy, and he and others in his administration have tried to point to positive economic statistics to change public perceptions. Kerry has argued that despite those numbers, the economic recovery is uneven and that middle-class families are under financial pressure from rising medical costs and stagnant incomes.
When McInturff tested those two messages, he found voters responded far more favorably to the Democratic message. In McInturff's findings, 55 percent said they were likely to vote for the Democratic candidate, while 42 percent said they would vote for the Republican.
McInturff then tested other Republican economic messages that focused more attention on proposals to spur growth, including additional tax cuts for businesses or tax cuts to help small businesses provide health insurance to their workers. When he did so, the big Democratic advantage disappeared.
He urged Republican governors -- and by implication the president and his team -- to avoid talking only about the current health of the economy. "You have to tell people the economy is getting better but have to quickly say more is being done and you have to provide the idea of the kinds of things you're going to do," he said.
Like the Republicans, Democratic governors held their own closed-door strategy session Saturday afternoon, where speakers included Kerry's national chairwoman, former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, who outlined the campaign's goals for the Boston convention.
"They felt that the numbers were trending in the right direction and that the purpose of the convention is really to introduce Kerry and [Sen. John] Edwards [of North Carolina, Kerry's vice presidential running mate] to a larger population," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who will speak on health care in Boston.