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The Economics Equation

By Salena Zito

It's the economy, stupid -- again.

Americans are more worried about their pocketbooks than the war in Iraq or Iran's nuclear program, suggests a recent poll by the New Democratic Network.

"The economy is the sleeper issue in the American electorate," says network head Simon Rosenberg.

William Beach, director of the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, agrees: "If there is enough evidence of weakening, then economic questions will be more prominent than they would otherwise have been."

While the fundamentals -- unemployment and job creation -- now look good, "all of those numbers are backward-looking. Going forward, things don't look quite as rosy."

But most elections are retrospective when matters economic are considered, says Matt Lebo, a political science professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"(Ronald) Reagan asked if people were better off now than they were four years ago. His vice president, George H.W. Bush, ran with the expectation that he would continue Reagan's economic stewardship.

"Bill Clinton in 1996 could point to the progress of the economy and got re-elected, but when his predecessor ran in 1992, (Bush) failed to communicate that."

Lebo says Al Gore was a failure attempting to run on the economy. By running away from Clinton -- perceived by voters to have "grown" the economy -- "Gore threw away his chance to reap the benefits ... and the electorate's approval of Clinton's economic stewardship."

Gore defined the 2000 election as a forward-looking one and George W. Bush was more than happy to go along. In that case, the election turned on what people liked better -- Bush's promise of tax cuts.

Heritage's Beach predicts Republicans will do well "if they continue to offer a supply-side story and talk about American economic exceptionalism -- an extremely powerful message."

The New Democratic Network's Rosenberg says the Democrats' nominee must offer an economic plan that reflects the size of the problem with which people can identify.

"If the Democrats' agenda is not bold enough or big enough ... they will not be rewarded in the polls."

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at

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