Married women with children, the "security moms" whose concerns about terrorism made them an essential part of Republican victories in 2002 and 2004, are taking flight from GOP politicians this year in ways that appear likely to provide a major boost for Democrats in the midterm elections, according to polls and interviews.
This critical group of swing voters -- who are an especially significant factor in many of the most competitive suburban districts on which control of Congress will hinge -- is more inclined to vote Democratic than at any point since Sept. 11, 2001, according to data compiled for The Washington Post by the Pew Research Center.
Married mothers said in interviews here that they remain concerned about national security and the ability of Democrats to keep them safe from terrorist strikes. But surveys indicate Republicans are not benefiting from this phenomenon as they have before.
Disaffection with President Bush, the Iraq war, and other concerns such as rising gasoline prices and economic anxiety are proving more powerful in shaping voter attitudes.
The study, which examined the views of married women with children from April through this week, found that married mothers support Democrats for Congress by a 12-point margin, 50 percent to 38 percent. That is nearly a mirror-image reversal from a similar period in 2002, when this group backed Republicans 53 percent to 36 percent. In 2004, exit polls showed, Bush won a second term in part because 56 percent of married women with children supported him.
Here in suburban Columbus, one of the most important arenas in the 2004 campaign, the diffusion of this support is obvious in interviews, and the political implications are unmistakable.
Jean Thomas, a married mother of one, said she still feels a pang of fear every time she boards an airplane for work travel around the Midwest. "Terrorism," she said, "is the biggest concern on a daily basis."
But she said she is "pretty frustrated with politics driving decisions" in Washington. That is why she said she is strongly considering abandoning her support of Republicans to vote for the Democrats challenging Rep. Deborah Pryce and Sen. Mike DeWine on Nov. 7. Polls show that both Republican incumbents from Ohio are acutely vulnerable.
Significantly, Pew and other polls in recent days have found little or no advantage for Republicans in the aftermath of last week's foiled terrorist plot in London, even as Vice President Cheney and GOP leaders have warned that the event showed the risk of voting for a Democratic Party that they say is dominated by security doves.
Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew poll, said the "negative impact of Iraq is hurting not only Bush but also the Republican Party as well." No longer, Kohut said, is "terrorism alone enough to keep" married women and other voters in the GOP fold.
Yet the shift is not attributable to Iraq alone. Elizabeth Moore, a married mother of one, said she is frustrated by the war but sees no better alternative. "I am one of those who, when a bully slaps you in the face, you slap them back," she said.
‘Too much time in Washington’
Still, the self-described moderate Republican and Bush supporter said the military operation has distracted GOP lawmakers such as Pryce from equally important issues back home. "Too much time in Washington," Moore scoffed, explaining why she is likely to vote for Pryce's Democratic opponent this time. She voted for Pryce in 2004.
All of this suggests that the latest campaign by the GOP to portray Democrats as wobbly on security will be harder to sell in today's climate. Republicans have tried to replicate past success in the wake of the London arrests and Iraq war opponent Ned Lamont's victory over Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary. Bush and GOP strategists calculated that both events would fan fears about national security and create a headwind for Democrats.
The GOP message still resonates with some voters. Dolores Guerra-Sox, a married mother in Sterling Heights, Mich., said she will stick with Republicans in the congressional races. "We need somebody who is not going to make us take more steps back" as she thinks President Clinton did in the 1990s, she said. "My interest is what happened to us on 9/11."
But Pew -- in findings that echo three other polls released publicly this week -- found Bush and Republicans benefiting little, if at all, from Lieberman's defeat and the scare in Britain. There was a slight uptick in support for Bush's handling of terrorism, but voters remain broadly unhappy with the performance of Bush and the GOP Congress.
In its latest poll of the general public, conducted after the news from London broke, Pew found a majority voicing concerns that Democrats were too weak on terrorism, the precise charge Republicans have made over the past 10 days. Yet an even larger majority said they fear Republicans would involve the United States in too many military operations.
The result is a public that is essentially split over which party can best defeat terrorists. Washington Post-ABC News surveys found the Republicans held a 30-point average on the issue of terrorism in 2002-2004. But in the past two years, the GOP advantage has evaporated.
Moreover, terrorism does not have the salience as a political issue it did two years ago. In the latest Pew survey, only 2 percent of respondents cited it as the top issue they want to hear candidates discuss -- and that was after the news from London. Voters are less moved by sudden scares like that episode than they might have been two years ago, Kohut said.
"While we probably could not have gone toe to toe with Republicans in the immediate wake of 9/11, and even maybe not in the opening days of the war and the ramp-up to the war, the situation has changed so dramatically that Democrats in fact are in a position now to give better than they get on national security," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who has advised congressional Democrats on their 2006 strategy. Democrats "have to steel their spine to do this because they tend to react every time somebody says 'cut and run,' " he added.
David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises GOP leaders on election strategy, said married women in particular are often spooked more by the uncertainty of Iraq than the threat of terror. "They are increasingly unwilling to sustain the sort of sacrifices that we have to make over there," even though many support the mission, Winston said.
This would get no argument from Pryce, the No. 4 GOP leader in the House. She said this is "hands down" the toughest reelection fight of her 14-year career, after winning with 62 percent of the vote in 2004. This is Republican territory, she said, but it is a tough time to be a Republican in this part of the state this year.
Outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R) has pleaded no contest to ethics violations. Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican running to succeed Taft, is way behind in the polls. Several GOP candidates said Blackwell is almost certain to lose to Democrat Ted Strickland this fall. Unemployment is low by historical standards, but, as in much of the industrial Midwest, voters are anxious about the declining manufacturing sector and stagnating wages.
The cost of war has also been central to Republican troubles in Ohio. It was one year ago this month that 16 Marines from the same Ohio-based battalion were killed in Iraq, a devastating loss for the small town of Brook Park and the rest of the state. All told, 115 troops from Ohio have been killed in the war, the fifth-highest total in the country.
"I feel the pot is being stirred here more than other places in the country," Pryce said. "But maybe that is because I am in the middle of the pot."
Against this backdrop, Democratic candidate Mary Jo Kilroy, a Vietnam-era war protester who became commissioner of Franklin County, is offering voters a clear alternative to Pryce, who remains a supporter of the war.
Kilroy, whose Web site features a running tab of war costs and a video linking Pryce to Bush's "stay the course" policies, said she would not have voted for the Iraq invasion if she had been in Congress. "Certainly the war in Iraq is a major issue these days," she said, sitting in her new campaign headquarters Wednesday.
Kilroy accused Pryce of being "asleep at the switch" in terms of scrutinizing the war and protecting the United States. "We should not have to be scrambling to come up with a protocol" for preventing people from making liquid bombs on airplanes, Kilroy said. "These are not new problems."
‘Totally disgusted with this war’
Jo Ann Smith, a divorced mother in Upper Arlington, said she voted for Pryce last time but certainly will not this fall because of the war issue alone. "I am just totally disgusted with this war," Smith said. "I understand terrorism and the threat, but I am sick of hearing about it." Smith said she will vote for Democrats across the board, mostly because she considers Republicans the "worst of two evils."
In the Senate race, Sherrod Brown, a longtime Democratic congressman and champion of liberal policies, is running his own version of an antiwar campaign. He voted against the war resolution and the USA Patriot Act, which provided the government new terrorist surveillance tools and authority, at a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington held that both votes were politically disastrous moves.
"I voted against the Iraq war while Mike DeWine slept through the intelligence hearings, asked no real questions about weapons of mass destruction, asked no questions about a plan to win or a plan for reconstruction," Brown said. "If this election comes down to terrorism and war, I still win." If elected to the Senate, Brown said, he will demand the military come up with a plan to have all U.S. troops out in no more than two years.
DeWine has embraced the White House strategy of using terrorism as a wedge, condemning his opponent as a soft-on-security liberal. But his most aggressive attack backfired. A campaign ad that accused Brown of "weakening national security" was found to include a doctored image of the burning World Trade Center towers after Sept. 11. DeWine had to change the ad.
He said "Iraq is a grave issue" that is complicating the reelection campaign. But he added that when Ohioans learn about Brown's vote against terrorism-fighting tools and a funding increase for the intelligence program, the race will shift his way. "Time will tell how people sort this out," he said.
Marylee McCallister, a mother of three who was a Republican for 42 years until this April, already has. She voted for Bush because she believed his warnings that the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), would weaken the nation.
"I was dumb," she said. "Now, granted, they came here and rammed bombs into us, but I am afraid we have gotten into something full scale which perhaps did not have to be."
Staff writer Dan Balz and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.