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Economy, Immigration Top US Voters' Domestic Concerns


American public opinion polls show economic issues, questions of governance and immigration reform as top domestic concerns as Americans prepare to vote in congressional and local elections November 7. Matters close to home are never far from voters' minds, but, this year, domestic issues appear to be taking a back seat to international affairs.

It has long been said that Americans "vote their pocketbooks," meaning they tend to choose candidates they feel will promote and protect their economic well-being. But 2006 could be an exception, according to analyst Karlyn Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute.

"It is Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, I think, with everything else a pretty distant second place," she said.

Yet foreign affairs often touch upon domestic matters. For example, international trade pacts inevitably provoke concerns about local economic disruptions. The war in Iraq is no different, according to George Washington University public affairs professor Stephen Hess.

"Things like war cost money. Money comes out of your pocketbook. So you can never think of international events, when they involve war, as being entirely international affairs," he said.

Polls show a majority of Americans favoring opposition Democrats for control of Congress. But President Bush has pointed to strong economic numbers in making the case for continued Republican legislative leadership.

"Vote Republican. We have the best plan to protect you," Mr. Bush said on ABC's This Week program. "And we will keep your taxes low to keep this economy growing. People are working. The unemployment rate is 4.6 percent. This economy is strong."

But New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer says the American public is dissatisfied with Republican leadership.

"People want change. People are not happy with the direction America is going. They are unhappy abroad with Iraq. They are unhappy at home because the middle class is squeezed [economically]," he said on CBS' Face the Nation program.

American political commentator Stu Rothenberg says Americans are somber about the economy despite several years of expansion.

"The economy is a mixed picture," he noted. "The big numbers in terms of unemployment, economic growth - there are some indicators that people should be happy [with the economy]. But they are not. They do not think the economy is performing all that well."

Rothenberg says broad public apprehension about the situation in Iraq is casting gloom over everything else, including economic performance. Nevertheless, he notes that falling gasoline prices in the United States can only help the governing party.

Republicans have controlled the White House since 2001 and both houses of Congress for 10 of the last 12 years. With one-party control of government, Republicans are likely to be credited for successes - and blamed for failures. Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne says, when it comes to matters of governance, Republicans are on the defensive.

"The mood of the country is sour," he said. "Less than 30 percent of the people approve of the job that Congress is doing. The president is disapproved by more people than he is approved. Trust in government is at an all-time low."

Wayne says President Bush and Republicans, in general, have been hurt by public perceptions that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was slow and poorly managed. And, while both parties have had embarrassments to contend with, the recent resignation of a Republican congressman who sent sexually-explicit messages to teenage legislative assistants put an unwelcome spotlight on Republican governance and conduct.

President Bush addressed the subject at a recent news conference.

"It is important for there to be trust in the halls of Congress and in the White House and throughout government. People have got to trust elected leaders in order for democracy to work," he said.

Political scientist Stephen Wayne says moral failings are especially damaging politically for Republicans, whose constituency includes large numbers of conservative Christians espousing so-called "family values."

"It is not likely that they [religious voters] will come out and vote Democratic. But it is likely that they might not come out and vote," he said. "And, if a significant segment of the Christian Coalition decides to stay home in this election, that will really hurt the Republicans.

Unlike in previous elections, there has been only modest national debate over divisive social issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. What has emerged as an explosive issue in many parts of the country is immigration reform and, in particular, what should become of 12 million illegal aliens living in the United States.

A political advertisement from a North Carolina congressional race reveals the rancor spawned by the immigration debate.

"Millions of Americans have lost their jobs to people who are not even supposed to be here. These illegal aliens pay no taxes but take our jobs and our government hand-outs, then spit in our face," the advertisement states.

President Bush and others say immigrants have strengthened the United States and mass deportation of illegal aliens would be neither practical nor desirable. Mr. Bush has proposed comprehensive immigration reform that would include providing a path for law abiding illegal aliens to gain legal status. So far, however, Congress has only approved the construction of an 1,100-kilometer fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.