Iraq, Local Issues Driving Voters to the Polling Booth

Which issues will drive voters in Tuesday's midterm balloting? The Iraq war? Pocketbook matters? Scandals? Local concerns? Doyle McManus and Janet Hooks of the Los Angeles Times take a look at the upcoming elections with John Ydstie.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Four hundred thirty-five House seats, 33 Senate seats, 36 gubernatorial offices, thousands of state legislative seats, mayors, sheriffs, school board seats - all those and more are at stake when voters to go the polls Tuesday. Billions of dollars have been spent, countless hours of television ads have been aired, and countless more are still to be shown before the results are counted in one of the most closely watched midterm elections in past 50 years. Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and a frequent guest on the show. Welcome back, Doyle.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Good morning, John.

YDSTIE: And joining Doyle today is Janet Hook, a senior political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Welcome, Janet.

Ms. JANET HOOK (Los Angeles Times): Good morning.

YDSTIE: Janet, I want to go to you first. Republicans now acknowledge they may lose a dozen or so House seats, but they say they're going to hold on to the Congress, despite the War in Iraq because when all is said and done, people vote on local issues. Does that square with what you've heard and seen as you've traveled around the country during this campaign?

Ms. HOOK: Well, I think this is a very unusual campaign. I do think that Tip O'Neill was right in saying that all politics is local - most of the time, except, you know, when it's not. And I think this is a year where national and international issues are weighing much more heavily on voters. And you can see it.

I've found that more voters that I've talked to - and the poll evidence indicates that people more than usual are thinking about this really as a choice between parties - do they want Democrats or Republicans to control Congress - more than as a choice between two particular candidates.

YDSTIE: You agree with that, Doyle?

Mr. McMANUS: I do. The polls bear that out. The polls show that there is dissatisfaction with the war, of course, dissatisfaction with the president, but stronger than anything else, dissatisfaction with the Republican leadership in Congress. And if you look at President Bush's own rhetoric, when he's been on the stump for the last two weeks, he's in effect accepted the premise that this is a national election. He's not talking about local issues; he's talking about taxes and he's talking about national security. So even the president has had to surrender to that tide.

YDSTIE: Well, let's talk about those pocketbook issues: taxes, jobs, incomes, inflation. Doyle, they're usually at the top of voter's concerns. Can confidence in the economy or worries about it compete with the war as an issue this time around?

Mr. McMANUS: You know, in a funny way, this is a case where if Republicans didn't have bad luck, they'd have no kind of luck at all. The unemployment figure that came out last week was the best unemployment figure in five years. Gasoline prices, which at the beginning of the summer were spiking and an enormous headache, they've come back down. By all rights, Republicans should be feeling good about the economy, and in fact they're trying to communicate that to the electorate. What's happened in the polls is that folks have said, okay, I don't have to worry about the economy quite so much. I'm going to focus my worrying on Iraq. So the economy, which should have helped Republicans and may be helping them a little bit, isn't really getting much traction.

YDSTIE: Yeah, yeah. Janet, the ethics scandals have hit both Republicans and Democrats in recent months and years. Do you see them as playing any overarching role, or will they just be factors in a few specific races?

Ms. HOOK: Well, two things. I mean, you say will it be a factor in just a few particular races? There are actually several where specific ethics scandals have undercut Republicans' chances. The House seat of Bob Ney in Ohio, Tom Delay's in Texas, Mark Foley's in Florida, collateral damage in some other states from those scandals. I mean, that starts getting up to five, six, seven, and when Democrats are only looking to gain 15 seats, ethics right there is taking a big toll.

But I do also think that it has an overarching effect in that the prevalence of scandals kind of feeds into a big theme of sort of disillusionment with Washington and a sense that incumbents are a little out of touch with the values of voters.

You're correct, though, that both Democrats and Republicans have been tarred by scandal here, but I think the overwhelming balance of the impact is that it hurts Republicans more.

YDSTIE: Doyle, it's a political given that incumbency is an advantage. Will voter concern about this abuse of power erode the advantage that incumbents usually have in elections?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, it's eroding it, I think to some degree, on the Republican side. What you see, in a sense, is that in districts where an incumbent was already a bit of a weak incumbent - that is to say, had problems of one kind or another, or had a tenuous grip on the district - that incumbent's in trouble. But even in this year of this apparent Democratic tide, you can expect 90 percent of the Republican incumbents to hold their seats. The problem is 10 percent is 20 seats, and that's enough to swing the House.

YDSTIE: I'm not going to ask each of you how the races are going to turn out, or whether the Congress will go or the House will go to the Democrats, but let's talk a little bit about turnout. Midterm elections traditionally don't draw many voters. Is this one interesting enough so people are going to show up?

Ms. HOOK: Well, I do expect the turnout will be higher, and frankly, if it's not, I don't know what it is that's going to get people to turn out to vote, because both parties have cast this in very stark and important terms, that so much is at stake that - I really do think that there will be a lot more people voting in general. And the key question is which party voters feel more intensely. A lot of polls show that Democrats are more enthusiastic about it this election, and that Republicans are feeling a little dispirited. But on the other hand, Republicans have a great get-out-the-vote machinery that maybe they'll match Democrats in that way.

YDSTIE: Finally, what's the bellwether that each of you will be looking for Tuesday evening. Doyle?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, here's a tip for television viewers. I'm going to be looking at Kentucky and Indiana because those are the first polls to close. They close at 6:00 o'clock Eastern Time. South Bend, Indiana, there's a tight race, and then up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, in Kentucky, there's a tight race. If both of those go to the Democrats, it going to be a big Democratic race.

YDSTIE: Janet?

Ms. HOOK: Well, and I think also, to whatever extent we could get early information on turnout, like I said, that really will be key.

YDSTIE: All right. Janet Hook is a senior political reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and Doyle McManus is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, John.

Ms. HOOK: Thank you.

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