decade ago, Bill Clinton's presidential campaign focused on a single issue
in his successful run, coining a now-famous term to sum up the election,
"It's the economy, stupid." Now, as control of Congress hangs
in the balance and with the faltering stock market, corporate malfeasance
and soaring deficits continuing to raise nation-wide concerns, all eyes
appear once again to fall on the economy.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle are worried that a protracted economic slump, a jittery stock market and story after story about crooked business deals may spell trouble for incumbents this year at the polls.
"I worry about it all the time," U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said recently. "I think people vote with their pocketbooks, and they are not very confident right now."
As early as June, opinion polls showed voters' economic worries were on the rise. By July the economy had overtaken terrorism and national security as the leading issue voters wanted addressed in the fall election.
Republicans, already worried about the historical trend of the party in the presidency losing Congressional seats in an off-year election, have expressed deep reservations about the economic issue.
"If the economy remains solid, if the stock market reasonably rebounds and gives faith to some folks, then I don't think there'll be any significant impact," Al Cardenas, chair of Florida's Republican Party, told The Los Angeles Times in July. "If that doesn't happen..."
Democrats have focused on the continuing scandal in corporate governance and the president's $1.35 trillion tax cut as their major campaign issues.
Republicans have largely responded by saying the booming economy of the 1990s was hollow, built on a series of corporate lies and government public relations campaigns.
"[The Clinton administration] spent the whole time talking about how the economy was the best it had ever been," Mike McDaniel, former head of the Indiana GOP, told The Los Angeles Times. "But there was more corporate greed taking place during those years than at any time in history."
Democrats defend the Clinton administration's economic record and point to Republican policies as the key to the current instability.
"The gains we made in the 1990s were not just real, they were record-breaking," Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, said in early August. "To suggest otherwise, to blame this progress for the problems in our markets now, that's not leadership. That is ludicrous."
Democrats have also focused on the idea of limiting deficit spending.
"I think you have to find offsets. That's what we were trying to do in all of the budgets that the Clinton administration proposed; when they proposed additional spending, they proposed offsets to pay for them," Sen. Daschle said on the NewsHour in February. "Let's ensure that we don't dig the hole deeper, and that is the difference between Democratic and Republican philosophies on this year's budget."
Despite Sen. Daschle's pledge of fiscal responsibility, both parties spent billions in the past year and a half. Republican leaders accuse the Democrats, particularly in the Senate, of deliberately talking down the economy for political benefit.
"It seems to me that the Democrats are so eager to win at virtually any cost that they aren't really interested in helping the economy grow... because they feel they can win if the economy is disrupted," Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said this summer. "As my grandmother used to say, 'Shame on them.'"
Democrats responded by saying Racicot's charges illustrated the GOP's inability to respond to the country's economic woes.
"To suggest the Democrats are trying to politicize economic problems confirms our concerns that Republicans are still out of touch with Americans' worries about Wall Street, the jobless recovery and the current state of economic uncertainty," DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said.
Regardless of the underlying policy, White House officials admit that if the economy falters, Republicans, and particularly the president, may bear the brunt of the public's anger.
"If it goes bad, we've got to eat it because we're sitting here," an unnamed Bush administration official told USA Today in July.
As Democrats in the Senate and administration officials at the White House fire charge and countercharge over who allowed the economy to stumble, candidates are taking matters into their own hands.
"There's a belief of members of Congress, particularly those in tough races, that they have to win these races on their own," U.S. Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is locked in a tight race for the Senate, said. "The economy is really the wild card in every election. Everybody is cautious."
Experienced election watchers agree that it may be the public perception of the economy and the stock market, and who is to blame for the economic uncertainty, that may play a more important role than any campaign promise or proposal.
"The investor class is the group to watch in this election cycle," pollster John Zogby said.
--By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour