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Dueling Strategies Drive Fight to Control Congress

Politics: Democrats hope to persuade the public that economic issues are more pressing, while the GOP stresses national security.


WASHINGTON — National security. Or economic security.

Increasingly, the battle for control of Congress is pivoting on which of these two issues end up dominating the campaign agenda in November's election.

Amid the pounding of war drums over Iraq, Democratic candidates are struggling to focus public attention on economic issues, especially the long-term stability of Social Security.

But Republicans--in states from Minnesota to Texas and South Carolina to Colorado--are stressing defense issues, hoping to paint their Democratic opponents as weak on national security and capitalize on strong public approval of President Bush's performance as commander in chief.

These efforts are clearly angering Democrats, as demonstrated by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's impassioned accusation Wednesday that Bush is politicizing the debate over war with Iraq.

Overall, many analysts say, defense issues are playing a larger role in congressional campaigns this year than at any point since the Vietnam era. "In recent times, there's been nothing like this," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Two new national surveys suggest that, against the backdrop of the sharpening confrontation with Iraq, voters are elevating national security over the economy in their priorities, as Republicans hope. But Democrats insist that voters remain more concerned about kitchen-table economics--and will tilt even more in that direction once Congress completes action on a resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq.

The election may turn on which party is right: Polls have consistently shown that voters give Democrats the lead on most domestic issues, but prefer Republicans on questions relating to defense and the war against terrorism. Each party is now working feverishly to keep voters focused on the side of the equation that favors them.

"You have two completely different strategies," said Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Now that Daschle has struck the first chord, some party operatives expect Democrats to unify around charges that Republicans are politicizing the war or unfairly questioning their patriotism. But Republicans show no sign of being dissuaded by those charges.

"We take it as a given that every one of these Democratic candidates is a fine American," said Mitch Bainwol, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "The question is whether or not they have the judgment to make decisions that are consistent with a strong America."

The contrasting strategies are starkly apparent in state after state.

In Minnesota, for instance, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone this week unveiled a new ad attacking his Republican challenger, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, for proposing to allow workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes into individual accounts they could invest in the stock market. "Can we trust Norm Coleman on Social Security?" the ad asks. "Absolutely not."

Coleman essentially asked the same question Monday about Wellstone on national security--and gave the same answer. While Wellstone has expressed resistance to military intervention in Iraq, Coleman in a major speech urged Congress to approve a resolution authorizing Bush to "act forcefully on behalf of our interests."

Alluding to Wellstone, Coleman argued that those resistant to unilateral U.S. action would in effect "give a blank check for unilateral action to [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein."

In one sense, Minnesota is unusual in this campaign. Wellstone's skepticism about unilateral military action against Iraq has created a clear contrast with Coleman.

In many more states--especially those Bush carried in 2000--Democratic incumbents and challengers have said they would support a resolution authorizing Bush to use force. But even in those states--which include South Dakota, Texas and South Carolina--Republicans are betting that broader Democratic views on defense will be more vulnerable in an environment shaped by last year's terrorist attacks and the prospect of a second war with Hussein.

In South Dakota, Republican Rep. John R. Thune has been criticizing Tim Johnson, the Democratic senator he is trying to unseat, over Johnson's vote against the 1991 congressional resolution authorizing then-President George Bush's use force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Earlier this month, Republicans ran an ad in South Carolina criticizing Democratic Senate nominee Alex Sanders for accepting contributions from the Council for a Livable World. The ad said the council, a liberal arms control group founded in 1962, combined "a peaceful name with a radical agenda, hostile to our men and women in uniform."

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