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Some GOP Politicians See Uncertain Job Prospects

August 02, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Despite an intensified White House defense of its economic policies and a welcome jump in the national growth rate this week, many Republicans up for reelection next year remain edgy as they await clearer signs of a sustained recovery.

"We are not where we need to be on the economy," said Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.). "And this is not where I'd like to be a year from now."

Republicans generally believe that the tax cuts they have passed will do what President Bush promises: kick-start the stock market, spur growth and restore public confidence in the U.S. economy.

But the economic indicator that traditionally has the most political significance is also the slowest to rebound: job creation. And GOP hopes for good news on that front were dashed Friday.

The economy lost another 44,000 jobs in July, the Labor Department reported. Although the unemployment rate dropped to 6.2% -- down from a nine-year high of 6.4% in June -- officials said that was because nearly 500,000 people simply had stopped looking for a job.

Even before the new report, some Republicans returning to their home districts during Capitol Hill's summer break have been met with tough questions about why so many people are still out of work.

"There's a lot of anxiety out there," said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose district has been battered by plant closings. "Some people see a light at the end of the tunnel, but some haven't seen it yet."

The economic situation remains grim in many communities around the country.

In Ryan's district, a Kenosha tool plant is scheduled to close, shedding 290 jobs.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., office-furniture manufacturers are hurting for business.

In Oregon, the state's economy has suffered from declines in several major industries, including high technology and forestry.

"Whether you do wood chips or computer chips, Oregon is struggling," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Republicans are keenly aware that the status of the economy could propel or undercut Bush's campaign for reelection -- as well as their own.

For months, Bush has been stressing his concern for the unemployed. And in recent days, his administration accelerated its effort to accentuate the positive.

On Wednesday, at a White House news conference, he pointed to positive signs of recovery. Also this week, he dispatched three senior advisors -- Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao -- to the Midwest to talk up the economy and defend his tax cut policies.

"Inflation is low. Productivity is high. We have every reason to believe that the economic recovery is gaining momentum as the tax cuts and rate relief kick in," Evans said at the start of the tour in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Evans and other Republicans cheered the Commerce Department report on Thursday that the gross domestic product grew 2.4% in the year's second quarter, up from the 1.4% growth rate in the first three months of the year.

But there were other indications that voters do not yet see cause for optimism. The Conference Board, a business group that assesses consumer sentiment every month, reported on Tuesday a sharp, unexpected drop in consumer confidence in July.

The unemployment level "and sentiment that a turnaround in labor market conditions is not around the corner have contributed to deflating consumers' spirits this month," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center.

Concern about the economy was evident in a memo Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) sent to his fellow Republicans this week. Citing a recent poll that indicated the party's message on the economy was not getting through, Santorum urged GOP senators to bring an optimistic message home to their constituents.

"People are anxious for the economy to turn around, and they want to know when things are going to get better," wrote Santorum, who heads the Senate Republican Conference. "Voters ... need assurance that this economy is going to get better."

Other Republican strategists are focused on a longer-term picture.

"It's not time to panic; what matters is where things are a year from now," when the 2004 campaign is in full swing, said Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "What's the game-day temperature? That's what we're trying to affect."

Most Republicans believe that by enacting three tax cuts since Bush took office, they have taken key steps to creating a positive economic climate next year.

"Most Republican members of Congress feel we have done the right things to get things going in the right direction," said Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Concerns about the economy could be taking a toll on the public's confidence in Bush. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that discontent with his efforts to revive the economy was increasing: 62% of those surveyed said Bush could be doing more, up from 53% in May.

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