Local issues appear to dominate contests for House and Senate

Lawmakers struggling to define themselves


WASHINGTON - Hog-tied by politics from getting anything done on the job, members of Congress are rushing home this week to urge voters to send them back for more.

With control of the House of Representatives and Senate up for grabs, the Democratic and Republican parties are searching for issues to galvanize voters to give them the slight edge they need to triumph Nov. 5.

But while Iraq and the economy dominate conversation in Washington, the picture around the country is much different.

"Right now, this looks like a very localized, Tip O'Neill-type election," said political analyst Amy Walter, referring to the former House speaker's admonition that "all politics is local."

"There's debate in one district about who's better on prayer in schools or crime issues, or taxes and personal ethics," said Walter, of the Cook Political Report. "It's not like '92, which was all about change, and '94, when every Republican was morphing every Democratic candidate into Bill Clinton. There's nothing like that out there today."

In fact, the parties have neutralized so many issues that candidates are finding it hard to distinguish themselves. No longer are promises of prescription drug benefits the sole purview of Democrats, although they contend that the Republican plan is a weak imitation of their own. No longer is the threat of war a huge boon to Republicans as many Democrats in tight races have sided with President Bush on Iraq.

Even the shaky economy isn't selling, although Democrats are peddling it loud and clear.

"It's a strange election because, while there should be two overriding issues - Iraq-terrorism and the economy - I don't think they're much resonating out there," said Stephen Hess, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution, a centrist policy-research center.

"I tend to think that the economy, which is always the issue that trumps all other issues, is sort of in a muddling position. It ain't great, but it's not bad enough to hurt enough people, so that there's an anxious feeling without necessarily creating a clear path to the voting booth. And people aren't quite sure who to blame for it anyway," Hess said.

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