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Iraq Fading as US Election Issue - 2002-10-31

U.S. voters head to the polls Tuesday, November 5 in congressional elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington. The question of whether to use military force against Iraq appears to be fading as an election issue in the final days of the campaign.

As he campaigns around the country for Republican candidates, President Bush still mentions the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But more and more, the president is focused on economic issues as the campaign for control of Congress winds down.

"We got some good news today. The third quarter [economic] growth was positive and that is good," the president said. "We are kind moving our way toward a time when people can find work. But there is more to do."

Political analysts say Iraq appears to be fading as an election year issue, overtaken by the kinds of economic and domestic concerns that normally dominate midterm congressional elections.

A new poll suggests that public support for military action against Iraq may be dropping. The Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of those surveyed supported U.S. military action against Iraq. That is down from 62 percent in early October.

"[There is] a lot more concern about casualties, a lot more concern about the possibility of terrorism in connection to the war," said James Steinberg, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization in Washington. "And so, I think it is out there. [But] I am skeptical that is actually going to play a very important impact in helping voters decide who to vote for in these races."

The stakes are high for both parties. Republican control of both the House and Senate would give the president some important advantages in putting forward his agenda as he prepares for his re-election bid two years from now.

Opposition Democrats are desperate to hold their one-vote margin in the Senate and they still harbor hopes of gaining the six-seats they need to regain control of the House of Representatives. Democratic control of one or both chambers would make it easier to impede the president's agenda and force compromises on key issues.

Democrats believe their key to success is emphasizing economic issues and getting their supporters out to vote on election day.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale focused on the economy as he opened his campaign for a Senate seat in Minnesota. "I think there is an undercurrent of distrust about our nation's economy that requires strong change and reform so that people can trust it," he said.

Democrats asked Mr. Mondale to run after Senator Paul Wellstone, who had been seeking re-election, died in a plane crash.

Political analyst Charles Cook says both parties are busy trying to emphasize issues they believe are favorable to them in the final days of the election campaign.

"I think if voters are focused on the economy then there could be some problems for Republicans, not necessarily for their control of the House of Representatives, but certainly in their hopes to pick up control of the Senate," he said. "But if they are thinking about anything else, like Iraq or foreign policy, then they are not thinking about the economy, therefore that is good for Republicans."

All 435 House seats are at stake in Tuesday's election as well as 34 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats. In addition, 36 states will elect governors and 40 states will offer ballot questions on issues ranging from bilingual education in Massachusetts and Colorado to animal rights in Florida and Oklahoma.