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Desperately Seeking Some Traction from "NASCAR Democrats"

No one can remember the last time a President held a Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate a new Food & Drug Administration regulation. But on Oct. 21, President Bush, with Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson at his side, announced rules making it easier to bring generic drugs to market. The regs, Bush said, will "reduce the cost of prescription drugs...for many."

The Administration had been working on the rules for months, but even industry lobbyists were stunned by the sudden announcement. They shouldn't have been. There's an election on Nov. 5.

The initiative is part of an intensifying battle over the campaign's Third Front. Voters overwhelmingly back the GOP on combating terrorism, and Democrats have been unable to gain any advantage from the sour economy. That leaves a set of domestic issues that may be the Dems' best chance to win control of Congress or, at least, hang on to the Senate.

The issues are all tied to growing fears of seniors and near-seniors over retirement security: Social Security, Medicare, soaring prescription drug costs, and shaky pensions. An Oct. 8-9 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll showed Democrats held a 16-point edge on health care and a 14-point lead on Social Security. "These could be the sleeper issues of this campaign," says pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press.

While Dems perennially use Social Security to scare seniors, their target this year is broader: 50-plus voters, including many NASCAR Democrats--blue-collar workers who back Bush and the GOP on terrorism and Iraq but, spooked by a 2 1/2-year stock market decline, worry about their retirement. In a low-turnout election, their support will be critical.

With Iraq and the Beltway sniper dominating the news, these issues are being fought out mostly in paid advertising. So far, more than $180 million, or a staggering 30% of all ad money, has been poured into messages about Social Security, Medicare, and health care, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, an Arlington (Va.) research firm. By contrast, just $9 million has been spent discussing terrorism.

In New Hampshire, the labor-backed Campaign for America's Future is mounting an assault on Representative John E. Sununu, blasting the GOP Senate candidate for supporting private Social Security accounts. The attacks have helped Democrat Jeanne Shaheen erase a once-daunting gap. "It's the one issue where Republicans haven't blurred the differences," says Hans Riemer, the group's senior policy analyst.

With attacks on private accounts also boosting Democrats in North Carolina and Colorado Senate races, "there's lots of concern" among Republicans, says Michael Franc, a vice-president at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

No wonder Bush and GOP candidates have responded ferociously. In both South Dakota and Minnesota, Republicans are hammering incumbent Democratic senators for raising taxes on Social Security benefits. Dems "have records to attack," says White House political director Ken Mehlman.

At the same time, the Administration is sending a kinder, gentler message about Medicare. On Oct. 21, HHS rolled out $25 million in taxpayer-funded ads. No overt politics, just a reminder that Medicare is "helping you help yourself." And the Labor Dept. is proposing new protections for 401(k)s.

Democrats won't win this election just on close-to-home issues like Social Security and health care. But unless Dems can use them to energize voters, the party is looking at a long night on Nov. 5. Facing an Oct. 28 deadline to name a new accounting oversight board, SEC Chairman Harvey L. Pitt is having to twist arms to find a chairman. He is trying to recruit former FBI and CIA chief William H. Webster--even though Webster, 78, has told friends he's not sure he wants the post. Webster worked as a securities lawyer before serving as a federal judge and Washington's favorite fix-it man. But that was long ago, and reform advocates say the demanding job requires a more vigorous presence. Pitt sought Webster after caving in to GOP lawmakers who objected to pension-fund executive John H. Biggs. While Administration officials insist they're not playing politics with Iraq, why has the President toned down his rhetoric in recent days? Perhaps because an Oct. 6 Gallup Poll suggests his bellicosity was doing more to motivate dovish Democrats than it was to stoke the fires of pro-war Republicans. The poll found that likely voters who cite Iraq as the top issue in the Nov. 5 election favored Democratic congressional candidates by 56% to 40%. GOP candidates are lining up to have ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani cut commercials calling them "my friend." The latest: New Jersey Senate hopeful Douglas Forrester, who trails Democrat Frank Lautenberg in the race to succeed disgraced Senator Robert G. Torricelli. But is Giuliani's considerable popularity transferable? Only 3 of his 9 endorsees are leading.

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