Bush's Dilemma in the Heartland

Job losses resonate strongly in states he can't afford to lose. Thus, his campaign's focus on national security and cultural issues

Jobs are on voters' minds in a big way this election season. I visited South Carolina, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New Hampshire during the Democratic primaries, and the No. 1 issue at every campaign event and rally was layoffs -- or the specter of losing employment. True, these were Democratic events. Still, the resonance of the jobs issue is borne out by a raft of national polls, with pockets of discontent in many states that are crucial to victory to any Presidential candidate in November.

Jackie Gore, an unemployed manufacturing plant worker in Charleston, S.C., says she attended a Howard Dean rally because "he wasn't afraid to answer the hard questions. A lot of people duck the manufacturing question. He doesn't." Guy Prickett, an assembler in Milwaukee, says employment security was his top concern in the 2004 elections. "My company has 400 jobs going to China," he elaborates.

And in Chicago on Mar. 5, John Fitzpatrick, a retired worker with Ameritech, worried about the future of his grandchild. "My son-in-law has been out of a job three times in the past five years due to companies downsizing," he says. "And my granddaughter got sick. Right now, he's still looking for a job." His vote, Fitzpatrick adds, would be conditioned on who can turn the ailing economy around.


  By razor-thin margins, Ohio and West Virginia went for Bush in 2000, but both states have been hammered by loss of manufacturing jobs during his first term. That's why Bush has made multiple visits to each state in the current campaign. And no Republican has ever won a Presidential election without carrying Ohio. GOP National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie insists the party could win without Ohio, but he adds that Bush would have to capture key swing states such as Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota, which went for Gore in 2000 and have also suffered sharp losses in manufacturing jobs.

Complicating things for the President is the fact that voters have lost confidence in his ability to foster job growth, despite the fact that an economic recovery is under way. A New York Times/CBS poll conducted Mar. 10-13th found that only 39% of Americans believed the President was likely to increase jobs, vs. 53% for Senator John Kerry. And less than one-third of respondents thought the President could improve the economy.

Bush still holds a commanding edge over Senator Kerry on national security issues -- 78% think the President "is likely to protect the country from a terrorist attack," while 61% thought the same of his Democratic competitor, the NYT/CBS poll showed. But traditionally, pocketbook issues have carried elections, which means President Bush could be unusually vulnerable for an incumbent, even with the economy trending upward.


  Certainly, his campaign is aware of this. And it's trying to change the subject. One part of the strategy is to hark back to September 11 and make it the defining event of the Bush Presidency. Phase one of the ad campaign featured images of the remains of the World Trade Center and multiple American flags. The fact that the Republican convention will be held in New York City in September will further underscore what befell the nation three years ago and Bush's resolve to be a "war President."

The campaign isn't just emphasizing the potential terrorist threat, however. It's also playing up cultural issues, such as gay marriage. The Bush strategy is to hammer away at these types of emotional issues in key battleground states with high numbers of voters who used to be called Reagan Democrats -- blue-collar males and industrial union workers who have lived with layoffs most of their adult lives but also tend to be socially conservative. While the majority of the public disapproves of Bush's recent call for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, the move could help him with working-class voters who are feeling economically insecure.

Ohio is a prime example, The Buckeye State is home to 20 electoral votes, which Bush won with less than 50% of the vote in 2000. Yet, 231,000 Ohio manufacturing jobs have vaporized since 2001 due to company closings, relocations, and outsourcing.


  Placing conservative cultural issues front and center in the campaign may be Bush's only shot to gain an edge, some GOP strategists figure. "If voters in Ohio are thinking about NAFTA and outsourcing, the President probably will have a real battle on his hands," says Gary Bauer, former Republican Presidential nominee and head of the conservative advocacy group American Values. "But if they're going to the polls considering the fact that the President believes marriage is between a man and woman and Kerry is confused on the topic, then Bush will carry Ohio. A lot of these swing states are very traditional."

It remains to be seen whether the President can refocus the campaign on issues like cultural values and terrorism. And national security and anti-terrorist issues could trump economic concerns in the aftermath of 9/11. Voters will decide in November.

Still, with so many jobs lost in his first term and job growth anemic so far this year, Bush finds himself in a predicament eerily reminiscent of the struggle his father faced 12 years ago in his reelection battle. He'll have to show signs of more vibrant job growth fast -- or spend the rest of the campaign trying to change the subject.

By Alexandra Starr, who covers politics from BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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