With the U.S. midterm election less than a month away, the campaign season is beginning in earnest. This year’s ballot is an especially important one: With the U.S. electorate virtually split in two, the outcome of a few key races could determine the shape of U.S. politics for a long time to come. It is ironic, then, that the key issue politicians are focusing on — the possible war against Iraq — does not top the list of voter concerns. That disconnect is a critical element of next month’s vote and could determine its outcome: Republicans will try at every opportunity to turn the ballot into a referendum on national security issues and the president’s performance as commander in chief. The Democrats will resist that effort and try to focus voters’ attention on the economy. Events may well overtake any concerted attempt to shape the political agenda.

American voters, like citizens everywhere, are concerned about the prospect of war with Iraq. Recent polls show that at least two-thirds of them feel that Saddam Hussein is “an imminent threat to U.S. interests.” At the same time, however, they do not agree that “regime change” in Baghdad is the most important priority in the war against terror. Nor does it top their list of concerns as they contemplate the next election. Instead, as is usually the case, economic issues come first.

Republican strategists prefer to put national security issues above all others. An incumbent president always commands more respect and influence — and has longer coattails — when viewed as commander in chief rather than as just another politician. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings are still stratospheric, especially when voters are asked about his role as defense chief. He becomes considerably more vulnerable when the questions focus on domestic policy.

And with good reason. The U.S. economy is “plodding along,” reports Atlanta Federal Reserve President Jack Guynn. In a speech this week, Mr. Guynn said he thought U.S. gross domestic product grew about 3 percent in the third quarter, a marked advance over the 1.3 percent growth of the second quarter. Consumers are holding tight to their money — retail sales fell 0.7 percent in the month of September compared with August — and for good reason. For the work week ending Sept. 28, new applications for unemployment insurance climbed by a seasonally adjusted 5,000 to 417,000, an increase slightly larger than analysts were predicting. For six weeks, new claims for unemployment benefits have been above the 400,000 mark, a level associated with a stagnant job market. Geopolitical uncertainty, the war against terrorism, plunging stock markets and fear of what the next headline will say have all introduced a level of instability and widening concern about the future.

In normal times, this would be a heaven-sent opportunity for Democrats. Not only is the administration fumbling, but it has squandered the 10 years of projected budget surpluses bequeathed by the Clinton presidency. But the Democrats have thus far been silent. Their chief concern has been covering their collective right flank, which explains the ease with which the administration’s request for authority to wage war against Iraq has thus far sailed through Congress.

There is one exception to this resounding silence: former Vice President Al Gore. In the last two weeks, Mr. Gore has made a thundering return to the political scene. In two widely reported speeches, Mr. Gore has taken the administration to task as no other Democrat has. His chief message has been a call for Mr. Bush to devote the same attention to the U.S. economy that he has to Iraq.

For Democrats, Mr. Gore’s return is a mixed blessing. After all, he is the man who lost the presidency that should have been his. Yet his status and the fact that he is not running afford him a freedom to challenge the president in ways that no serving politician can. Mr. Gore can shift the focus of the debate — from bullets to bread and butter — and put it on terms that favor the Democrats. With the nation so sharply divided, and the races that are genuinely contested so few, Mr. Gore’s impact could be powerful. The Republicans have a six-seat advantage in the House of Representatives, while the Democrats have a one-seat margin in the Senate. A shift in either House could completely alter the balance of power in Washington.

For U.S. President George W. Bush, this must seem eerily familiar. Not only is this election a rerun of the 2000 ballot, but there is another parallel. His father’s presidency was undone by the perception that he could not manage an economy as well as he could fight the Persian Gulf War. Mr. Bush has made a point of learning from his father’s mistakes. November’s ballot may well see how well he has absorbed those lessons.

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