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Economy could trump Iraq as campaign issue

Iraq may be foremost in voters’ minds right now, but pocketbook issues like taxes, jobs and health care will make the difference in the presidential race, top economic advisers to the leading contenders said Friday.

The war in Iraq may be foremost in voters’ minds right now, but when it comes time to vote for president late next year, pocketbook issues such as taxes, jobs and health care will be what makes the final difference, top advisers to the leading contenders said Friday.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released Wednesday, found that the war was, by far, the top concern of voters, cited by 34 percent. But when taken together, four economy-related issues — health care, job creation, energy costs and the rising federal deficit — were cited by another 33 percent.

In interviews with MSNBC, the economic advisers to the six leading presidential candidates agreed Friday that the results bore out James Carville’s famous dictum, issued in 1992 when he was a top adviser to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Leo Hindery Jr., the top economic adviser to former Sen. John Edwards’ Democratic campaign, acknowledged that “Iraq is clearly an urgent issue.”

But Hindery, executive in residence at the Columbia University Business School, predicted in an interview with MSNBC’s Amy Robach that by the fall, “these other issues will start to move to the side and people are going to vote as they often do, on pocketbook issues, on job security, on health care — that sort of panoply of issues.”

Consensus: Protect the middle class
Austan Goolsbee, the top economic adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., cautioned that “there’s a great deal of debate” about how much a president can actually do to stimulate the economy.

Still, “I think the economy is going to be right up at the top of issues that people are dealing with,” he said in an interview with MSNBC’s Alex Witt.

Goolsbee, Hindery and the chief economic advisers to the four other top contenders — Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Republican former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — all complained that middle-class Americans had not benefited substantially from an economy that recent government figures indicate is chugging along strongly.

“Everyone is concerned about people who haven’t made it on the economic ladder,” Michael Boskin, Giuliani’s top economic adviser, said in an interview with MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer. “The important thing is to have an economic policy that leads to upward economic mobility.”

Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, top economic adviser to the Romney campaign, singled out rising government spending as the crucial factor to protecting the middle class, and he took a swipe at President Bush, whose approval rating in the NBC poll has fallen below 30 percent.

“As governor of Massachusetts, [Romney] exercised the veto time and time again, so he showed that he can be tough on spending,” Weber said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. “That’s something we think maybe this president should do a little bit more of in the remaining time that he’s got in office.”

Solutions divide the campaigns
Polls indicate that, 17 months before Election Day, the most likely match-up could be between Clinton and Giuliani. Gene Sperling, top economic adviser to Clinton, wasted little time engaging Democratic rivals and went after Giuliani’s record Friday.

“The strong difference you’re going to see between people like Senator Clinton and Rudy Giuliani is that he’s happy enough to just kind of assume that growth has been OK or corporate profits have been OK and that it will just trickle down,” Sperling said.

“The typical American family is making $1,300 in inflation-adjusted dollars less than they were in 2000. They’re $1,300 poorer each and every year,” added Sperling, who was chairman of the National Economic Council during Bill Clinton’s administration. “If Rudy Giuliani and President Bush want to say that’s success, they can.”

But Boskin, who was chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, resisted any effort to paint Giuliani as unconcerned about the middle class.

Boskin agreed with the leading Democrats that middle- and working-class Americans had been left behind by the economic surge, saying, “Mayor Giuliani believes a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats, just most boats.”

“It’s important that the economy continue to grow,” he said, but “after that’s done, we also need programs to help people. We need primarily to have programs that are helping them invest in their human capital so they can compete and succeed in the marketplace.”

Boskin said the way to do that was by reining in spending, creating affordable health care “through market solutions” and diversifying sources of energy.

By contrast, McCain’s top adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, insisted that balancing the budget and cutting taxes were the solution.

“You look out there, and basically every day Democrats are proposing to raise taxes one way or another,” said Holtz-Eakin, who was director of the Congressional Budget Office in the current president’s first term.

“Senator McCain would keep the income and investment tax cuts permanent,” Holtz-Eakin said, adding that McCain would seek to change legislative rules so any tax increases required a three-fifths’ majority vote in Congress, “so that Americans are protected from partisan tax increases.”