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Swing states may be on the move

The voter sentiments that put Democrats on top in 2008 could turn against the party in November's midterm. Obama's proposals for healthcare, the economy and immigration could deepen divisions.

January 05, 2010|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Searchlight, Nev. — A commotion unfolds in the tiny public library here as the staff searches for a copy of the memoir written by Harry Reid, Senate Democratic leader and Searchlight native.

"Has anyone seen Harry's book?" a librarian calls out.

A local patron grabs a trash can and peers inside: "It's not where it's supposed to be," he says.

In his hometown at least, there seems to be little affection for Reid, whom some residents describe as a distant figure out of touch with local concerns.

That personal assessment may be part of the reason Reid faces a tough reelection fight in November despite 27 years in Congress. But other aspects of Reid's challenge raise far broader political questions -- questions that reach all the way to President Obama and Democrats in general:

As they seek to retain control of Congress, Democrats are finding that voter sentiments that gave the party its victory margins here and in other swing states in 2008 could turn against them for 2010.

Voters as a whole, rattled by continuing economic problems, tell pollsters they are disillusioned with incumbents -- including Obama and congressional Democrats.

Meanwhile, tensions within the Democratic coalition, muted during the presidential campaign, are sharpening as Obama's broad campaign promises morph into specific proposals.

And most ominous of all for Democratic prospects, the highly motivated swarms of young voters, Latinos and independents who made the difference between victory and defeat in 2008 now seem dispirited, while conservatives seem reinvigorated.

In this challenging climate, the Obama administration is setting a policy agenda that could make the Democrats' problems even tougher -- another bundle of divisive proposals that threaten to heighten tensions among the interest groups that supported the party last time.

The cross-currents are plain in Nevada.

Dave Steen, 65, an independent voter in Henderson, near Las Vegas, worries about the deficit and doesn't believe the $787-billion stimulus has helped the economy much. Steen is skeptical of more government spending -- something the Democrats are contemplating with a new jobs package meant to give the economy another boost.

Of the rising deficits, Steen said, standing outside a Wal-Mart: "Our kids and grandkids will never be able to pay it off. . . . It's just like [Obama] doesn't really care."

Then there is Patrick Kelleher, a 26-year-old restaurant manager in Las Vegas, where the unemployment rate is 13%. Kelleher, who voted for Obama, said he wants Washington to concentrate on the economy. As for the deficit, he said, "It doesn't worry me. We've always had a large deficit."

Embedded in every policy choice Obama faces in 2010 is just this sort of tension.

Push through a jobs package that adds to the deficit, and the president may please supporters like Kelleher but anger conservative Democrats and independents like Steen.

Plunge the White House into a bitter debate over illegal immigration, and potentially fire up Latinos, whose high levels of support were crucial in 2008, but also risk a backlash among voters who oppose immigration or think the administration's sole focus should be unemployment.

People close to the White House say the strategy for 2010 is twofold. Obama will kick off the year by showing relentless attention to jobs. When voters see the president focused on the recession, White House strategists say, he'll gain maneuvering room to address an immigration overhaul and other issues.

Jim Margolis, a campaign advisor to Obama in 2008, said in an interview, "There are a whole series of things that will have to happen over the next year. And the key is to make sure that Americans see real focus by the administration and Congress on jobs.

"If you do that, you create more political space to work on other problems, whether it's climate change, energy, immigration or war."

But the strategy calls for a brisk timetable -- Congress acting promptly on jobs and the economy before moving on to the other Obama priorities. That won't be easy.

Obama starts 2010 still struggling over healthcare legislation that many voters see as disconnected from what polls show is the central preoccupation of their lives -- the economy. Closing the final deal on healthcare and getting on to other issues is at least several weeks away.

And the protracted nature of the healthcare fight, beset as it has been by relentless Republican attacks and by divisions within the Democrats' own ranks, does not bode well for quick action on other legislation, including the promised jobs bill, immigration or climate change.

How much patience voters will show is a question.

Joseph Nichols, a 25-year-old Democrat from Henderson, said the healthcare debate "has been going on for quite a few months. And they need to stop and realize that Americans are losing houses and families because there are no jobs, no money, no nothing."

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