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Economic Security Major Concern for US Voters - 2004-01-14

This year's U.S. presidential election will be the first since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the first to occur during major U.S. combat operations in a foreign land since the Vietnam War. But many Americans say economic security - not national security - is their greatest concern as they look ahead to the November election.

On a frigid winter day, Chris Peliteri stands outside the U.S. Capitol building, awaiting a tour. A restaurant owner from Los Angeles, California, Mr. Peliteri says visiting Washington area landmarks makes him think back on September 11, including the attack on the Pentagon. He says the images from that day are permanently etched in his memory.

You might think national security would be Mr. Peliteri's overriding concern when he goes to the voting booth this year, but you would be wrong.

"Economic issues, definitely. I always think of economic affairs, since I am self-employed. It [the economy] affects me directly. I think about my pocket [wallet] first," he says.

Also standing in line at the Capitol is Lisa Baines, a college student from Phoenix, Arizona. She says her biggest worry is whether she will be able to find a job after graduation.

"I do not worry so much about [national] defense. I see where the economy is," she says. "A couple of my friends that were looking for jobs just out of college - they looked for six, seven months and they did not find anything."

A leading analyst of U.S. public opinion, John Zogby, says Chris Peliteri and Lisa Baines are not alone in focusing on bread-and-butter issues.

"By two to one, voters tell us that the economy is the number-one issue," he says.

Does that mean that Americans no longer care about the war on terrorism? Not at all, according to John Zogby. But he says the horror of the 2001 terrorist attacks has faded from America's national conscience. He says Americans have come to accept that their nation is at risk, and with that acceptance has come the ability to focus on other matters.

"The notion of a terrorist invasion of some sort, whether by biological pollutant or something dastardly as what we saw on September 11, the sense now is not that an attack could happen, but that it is going to happen. We know that we live in a new world," he says.

Chris Peliteri seems to embody this attitude. The restaurateur says he is well aware that the United States could come under attack at any time. Still, he says, he has a business to run.

"I put it in perspective for myself. I mean, what else can you do? I cannot protect the entire nation. I can only worry about my life," he says.

Not everyone feels the same way. Kate Shaw, a healthcare provider from North Dakota, says she rarely thought about national security before the September 11 attacks. Now, she feels it is just as important as economic well being.

"Security and economics," she says. "Those would be the two things that I would be most concerned about. I do not know if I could rate one over the other, at this point."

Some analysts argue that, since the advent of global terrorism, national security, and economic security are more interconnected than ever before.

John Samples directs the Center for Representative Government at the Washington-based Cato Institute. He says one need only look at several recently canceled U.S.-bound international flights to see the impact that the mere suspicion of terrorist danger can have.

"Relatively small terrorist acts could produce fairly large economic consequences. Or even the problem of dealing with them, as we saw over Christmas: we probably saw significant economic consequences just from the threat, and dealing with the threat, of terrorism," he says. "Canceling flights affects the willingness of people to travel."

And how might another catastrophic terrorist attack affect U.S. voter attitudes? John Samples says the American public's sense of vulnerability, not to mention anger, would skyrocket, eclipsing everyday concerns about jobs, interest rates and the stock market. But he says Americans tend to rally around their president during national crises, and that an attack would, in the short term, solidify support for President Bush.