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Pushed aside

The Baltimore Sun

The once-yellow ribbon outside Alison Malachowski's Westminster home is old and weathered. Even before her daughter was deployed to Iraq last spring, she had already sent her son to war three times.

Malachowski has monitored the news reports since the beginning of the war, but lately, from the campaign trail to the cable news networks, talk of Iraq has been dwarfed by other issues. With the election less than a week away, campaign chatter has focused on everything from domestic terrorists to taxes, from an Ohio plumber named Joe to the cost of one candidate's wardrobe. In many ways, the Iraq war has become a secondary issue.

"When it's not on the news, it does feel like nobody cares," Malachowski said. "It's like, 'Wait a second, my child is over there. They're doing amazing things over there, putting their lives on the line.' Sometimes I wonder, 'Gosh, I hope everyone remembers.' "

According to a Gallup poll last December, one in three Americans surveyed felt that the war in Iraq was the most important issue facing the country, more than selected the economy and health care combined. But a Pew Research Center survey this month indicated that only one in 10 still say that Iraq is the most pressing issue.

As John McCain and Barack Obama crisscross the country courting voters, their stump speeches have focused more on the economic collapse than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think there's a hierarchy of values in people's existence," said the Rev. Peter Nord, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore. "When they feel their personal lifestyle is threatened - Will I have a house? Food? A job? - people naturally retreat into those concerns. For example, if you live in Galveston and a hurricane comes, who cares about anything else in the world? Suddenly, you don't have a house."

Obama and McCain constructed their candidacies on Iraq. Obama gained traction as an early opponent of the war, although he was not in the U.S. Senate when military action was authorized. McCain backed President Bush's strategy of sending more troops to Iraq, and as his poll numbers dipped, he said he would rather lose an election than lose a war.

But both campaigns have moved on to other issues, especially in recent weeks as the stock market has plunged and Congress approved a $700 billion federal bailout.

Observers point to at least three primary reasons for the shift in focus: a decline in U.S. casualties, the vast reach of the economic crisis and the nature of presidential campaigns to focus quickly on emerging hot-button issues. While 904 American soldiers were killed in 2007, the war's deadliest year, the number has fallen to 284 reported deaths in the first 10 months of 2008.

Nord says many area churches still read the names of war casualties each Sunday. And Malachowski says that since her daughter, 1st Lt. Brandy Malachowski and the Laurel-based 224th Area Medical Support Company deployed this year, she and other families have received overwhelming support from a variety of places - Girl Scout troops, Harley-Davidson motorcycle clubs and the American Legion.

"Veterans and the global war on terror are not being ignored, except maybe by the media," said Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion.

Opponents of the war say that the war and the economy are not necessarily separate issues.

"Much of the mainstream media tells one piece of the story," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, the nation's largest anti-war coalition. "For whatever reason, the war isn't on the front page, it's not the big headline. Yet, there is this connection to be made to the economic crisis."

Opponents say the $10 billion per month spent on the Iraq war could be diverted to other needs.

"I don't understand why the candidates nor the press have made the connection between the cost of this war, the debt it has run up for the country and the economic collapse that we are seeing," Nord said. "We have put billions of dollars - at least as much as the bailout - into Iraq. Frankly, if you stopped the war, brought people home, applied a few billion [dollars] a month to mortgage relief, we'd be in a very different setting right now."

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, said he takes comfort in knowing that no matter who is elected next week, this country might soon take important steps toward conciliation. He likes that McCain has denounced torture and that Obama is a proponent of a timetable for leaving Iraq.

Both candidates have discussed providing more resources for Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida are making gains.

Because the Iraq war was such a prominent topic during the primaries, Connors said that most voters probably know where the candidates stand and might not need to hear much more from them on that issue.

"The candidates have staked out such different positions," Connors said. "We heard them, people understand them, there's less to vet now. I think there's been a lot more uncertainty, though, about what either candidate is really going to do about the economic issues facing the country."

Around Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, the war in Iraq and military deployments are constant topics, but in recent months people have been talking just as much about gasoline prices and retirement plans, said Trey Kindlinger, 34, who spent nine years in the Navy but was a conscientious objector to the war in Iraq. His wife is still on active duty.

"I can completely see why you don't hear as much about the war; the economy affects everybody," said Kindlinger, who is active in Iraq Veterans Against the War. "I think people aren't asking as many questions about it. Popular sentiment and common knowledge is that the surge has worked and things are getting better. And they are. But we can't stop asking questions."

The war is never far from Malachowski's thoughts. After three tours, her son, Sgt. James Malachowski, is now stationed at Parris Island, S.C. Her daughter Brandy, 25, is not scheduled to return home from Iraq until spring. In the meantime, they chat as often as possible and Malachowski follows the news reports as best she can.

"Much of the support really has been incredible," she said. "It means so much to me what these people are doing in the area. The families definitely feel the stress. Everyone puts on a brave front, as we should, for our soldiers' sake. But we're always concerned. You never know when you talk to your son or daughter whether that's the last time you'll speak to them."

DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

36%

Number of Americans

who said in a December Gallup poll that Iraq

was the most important issue facing the country

11%

Number of Americans who said in a Pew Research Center poll this month that Iraq was the most pressing issue

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