President Bush's top political strategists believe that he can win a second term even if most Americans are dissatisfied with their incomes and worried about their job prospects.
Throughout the first three nights of the Republican National Convention, speakers have largely bypassed current economic issues that voters say are a powerful factor in their mind and that Democrats have called Bush's greatest vulnerability.
On Wednesday night, Vice President Cheney devoted one paragraph of a 32-paragraph speech to the economy, arguing that "businesses are creating jobs, people are returning to work. . . . The Bush tax cuts are working."
Jobs and the economy received no more notice on the first two nights, despite a Washington Post poll showing those issues rank No. 1 for far more voters than Iraq or terrorism in deciding their November vote.
Matthew Dowd, the pollster for the Republican National Committee and an adviser to the White House, said in an interview Wednesday that the negative ratings Bush received on his handling of the economy -- with 52 percent disapproval and 45 percent approval in the Post-ABC News poll -- does not represent a major threat to his reelection effort.
"There's a lot of people out there who say, 'I think the country is on the wrong track' or 'I'm not satisfied with this economy,' but 'when I look at these two men, I'd rather have George Bush in charge than John Kerry.' " Support for his view can be found in responses to another question in the poll. When voters were asked who would do a better job of handling the economy, Bush and Kerry were in a statistical tie, with 48 percent naming the incumbent and 47 percent the Democratic challenger.
But some leading Republicans have said that they are worried about a possible voter backlash to economic conditions and that Bush must defend his record on the economy in his Thursday night acceptance speech. A number of second-tier speakers began defending the Bush economic record Wednesday night.
Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), a Bush intimate from a state that has been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs, said that while overall numbers have begun to improve, "there is an anxiety out there. There is a nervousness about the new economy."
"We have not explained the changes that have taken place," he said. "The president has to lay out his agenda for keeping the economy growing."
One reason the speakers have steered away from the economy is that Bush has reserved to himself any detailed discussion of that agenda. Officials expect him to commit to further reforms -- and reductions -- in taxes and to a Social Security revision that would allow younger workers to use some of their payroll taxes to establish personal savings accounts.
But the specifics of these plans -- if they exist -- are closely guarded.
In warm-up speeches before the TV network coverage began Wednesday night, Portman and others made the case that Bush inherited a weak economy but has turned it around by combining tax cuts with efforts to expand exports and improve job training.
To find a striking example, they went to Hawaii -- a state whose economy is as closely tied to Japan as to the mainland United States. Gov. Linda Lingle (R) said her state "was mired in economic stagnation throughout the 1990s" but now "has turned around dramatically." Unemployment has dropped to 3 percent, she said, "construction and real estate are booming . . . and 2004 may well go down as the best year for tourism we've ever seen."
Portman and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) also argued that the economy was "sliding toward recession" before Bush came to office and now, as Ryan put it, "is strong and growing stronger." The two legislators and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao cited a growth of 1.5 million jobs in the past year. But payrolls remain 1.1 million jobs short of where they were when Bush took office.
Earlier Wednesday, the Bush campaign organized a news conference to discuss the second-term economic agenda, but the briefers -- led by Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans -- found themselves mainly defending Bush's economic record.
Evans cited record homeownership rates, low inflation and interest rates, and economic growth that is "faster than any other industrialized country in the world."
"When you look at all the economic data collectively," he said, "you can't do anything but conclude this is a strong economy."
Evans did not mention a report released Wednesday showing a marked slowdown in the manufacturing recovery. Nor did he mention Tuesday's report showing the first decline in consumer confidence since February.
Privately, some administration economists are worried that the latest unemployment report, scheduled to be released on Friday morning, may provide more evidence that the healthy recovery that seemed to be underway last spring has faltered over the summer.
In the news conference, Evans and New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) said the economy is in "the early stages of the Bush recovery," a less buoyant description than Evans's assertion last April that this is "clearly one of the strongest economies in my lifetime."
Democrats count on economic discontent as one of the main factors bolstering Kerry's chances, noting that history has been unkind to presidents -- including Bush's father -- seeking reelection after periods of economic slowdown.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards continued to focus on the economy, as he visited Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where residents are reeling from the closure of Techneglas, a television-glass-making company, which will put nearly 700 employees out of work by the end of the year. He also lashed back at speakers at the Republican convention who have ridiculed his "two Americas" theme, saying that there is an economic divide in the country, "and it's not funny."
"The last couple of nights they've been poking fun at these two Americas that I've been talking about," Edwards said. "Well, they can poke all the fun they want, but they need to come out here to Pennsylvania to see what's happening in the real world," he said.
But Republicans point out that the latest recession -- which officially began in November 2001, 10 months after Bush's inauguration -- was one of the shortest and shallowest on record. Speakers here contended that Kerry's call for higher taxes on top-bracket incomes poses the real threat to the current recovery.
Weisman reported from Washington. Staff writer Vanessa Williams, traveling with the Edwards campaign, and researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.