It's the economy, candidates discover again

Washington — Washington -- With the economic outlook growing bleaker by the day, presidential contenders from both parties are busy pitching stimulus packages and other fixes to try to sway voters.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign, for example, talked up her plan to freeze sub-prime mortgage rate readjustments in a conference call with Maryland reporters last week.


On the line was former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, discussing how the mortgage mess was threatening neighborhoods in Baltimore. The most vulnerable communities are home to many African-Americans, who polls show are leaning toward Sen. Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat.

Clinton "has got a plan, because she's been focused on these issues for much of her career," Townsend said. "She, I believe, has the most comprehensive economic policy of any of the other candidates."


Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made economic recovery the centerpiece of his message in Michigan, where he emerged with a sorely needed victory in last week's primary after pledging help for the automobile industry.

Months ago, the economy seemed a back-burner issue. Candidates were talking mostly about Iraq, immigration, homeland security, and, later, broad themes like change and experience.

But then the economic headlines grew more ominous. Jobless claims went up. The stock market got off to its worst annual start in decades. Inflation is on the rise. A recession seems more likely.

When voting began in early primary states, exit polls reflected economic concerns.

In New Hampshire, 97 percent of Democratic voters said they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned about the economy. The worriers gave Obama and Clinton equal numbers of votes.

Fifty-five percent of Michigan Republicans who went to the polls last week said the economy was the top issue, compared with 17 percent who cited Iraq and 13 percent who said terrorism. Among those Republicans who said the economy was in trouble, Romney gained a narrow plurality over Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Against that backdrop, the candidates, seemingly on the fly, have been dusting off, refining and repackaging economic proposals to reflect what they believe voters want to hear.

Both Clinton and Obama released stimulus packages in recent days.


Clinton's includes $25 billion for heating oil and other energy assistance, and $30 billion for states and cities to deal with the impact of foreclosures. Obama called for similar funds, including a $250 tax credit to workers who pay payroll taxes, and a $250 payment to Social Security recipients, among other measures.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina unveiled his plan nearly a month ago, calling for $25 billion in federal investments and $75 billion more if the economy slips into a recession.

Republicans, too, have talked about help.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson endorsed a package that includes an increase in the child tax credit to $1,500. "That would put, depending on the circumstances of the family, maybe a couple thousand dollars in people's pockets that need it, and would help the overall economy," he said on CNN.

"Governor [Mike] Huckabee is the only candidate amongst the group that's been talking about the economy and the middle-class issues since the beginning of this campaign," said campaign manager Chip Saltsman, speaking on MSNBC. "And I think now that you see the issues, coming around, talking about the economy, talking about jobs."

At least one top Republican strategist, however, sounded worried that the economic answers offered by some of his party's candidates were too far removed from the day to day concerns of voters in a time of distress. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, for instance, has continued to suggest that the best antidote to the current trouble is to make Bush tax cuts permanent.


Former presidential adviser Karl Rove said in a speech to state party officials last week that the eventual Republican presidential nominee "has got to go out and immediately engage on the kitchen-table issues that we've got great answers for but are sometimes concerned about talking about."

Will voters be able to sort out which economic proposals are superior? Probably not, said Richard R. Lau, a Rutgers professor who has studied political persuasion and the role of the news media in shaping campaigns.

"What the candidates need to do is show they are aware of the issue and they are thinking about it and they have some plans. Nobody is going to look - other than people in the press or other candidates - specifically at what the candidates are saying," Lau said "And frankly, nobody is going to hold them to it. Even if they get elected, they are only one actor in the process."

Those other actors - the current Congress and president - aren't waiting for the election.

Last Friday, President Bush acknowledged at a White House press conference - with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke at his side - that the economy is in serious trouble. He urged Congress to immediately pass temporary legislation that would place billions in the pockets of consumers and businesses willing to make investments. Both Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to work together on an emergency stimulus plan.

But prompt action in Washington may not blunt talk of the economy on the campaign trail, especially if conditions worsen.


At the moment, with no obvious favorite in either party, candidates are rushing from Nevada to South Carolina to Florida, looking for the few votes that could put them over the top in what has become an extended campaign. They're hoping that their expressions of economic concern and promises to help struggling families will help provide that edge.

"At the margins, just about anything can matter. Where it's close and there are no front-runner, the margins might be pretty damn important," said Lau, the Rutgers professor.