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Economy, war top voters’ list of worries

It’s not just the economy, stupid. When voters are focusing on the presidential election, it’s also the war in Iraq.

Both issues are important to Laura Dowty, a Spokane attorney who was among some 400 Washington residents polled recently for The Spokesman-Review and three other newspapers.

Dowty said the nation needs to do more to expand jobs at home, rather than losing them to other countries. She knows plenty of people who are unemployed, and classmates who graduated from Gonzaga University with her three years ago are still looking for jobs.

And she thinks the war in Iraq was a mistake.

“I think we needed more information. (President Bush) just jumped in,” Dowty said. “We’ve got Saddam Hussein, let’s get out of there. It’s time for the United States to take care of the United States.”

Dowty is not alone in these concerns. In the poll, which was conducted Sept. 17-20, concern over the economy and jobs tied with the war in Iraq for the top issue among voters for deciding the presidential race. Each was picked by 29 percent of voters surveyed from a list of key issues – nearly twice the number for the next closest issue, health care.

Mark Martin, an agriculture marketing specialist in Yakima, would disagree about the war. It was, and remains, the right thing to do, said Martin, who believes homeland security is the top issue in the presidential race.

“I think everything’s predicated on that. Look what happened on Sept. 11,” he said.

Robert Hitchcock says the war was a mistake, but he can’t see pulling the troops out now.

“We stay until it’s stable,” said Hitchcock, a sales consultant from Five Mile. “Whether we lost one life or over a thousand, we owe it to those families and those soldiers to stay until it’s done.”

To get an idea of the issues voters consider important in the races for president and governor, the newspapers and the Associated Press commissioned a poll by Ipsos Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C., firm. Pollsters contacted 500 adults in Washington and interviewed 406 of those who said they were registered voters, on a variety of election issues.

The poll, conducted Sept. 17-20, has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. The Spokesman-Review, the News Tribune of Tacoma, the Everett Herald and the Vancouver Columbian shared the costs of the poll and coordinated with AP for the release of stories based on its results.

Ipsos analyst Thomas Riehli said the poll indicates Washington voters are more likely to say the war was a mistake than Americans as a whole. In the Washington survey, 53 percent said the United States made a mistake in going to war, and 44 percent said it was the right decision. In a recent national survey by the Pew Center, 53 percent said it was the right decision, and 39 percent said the wrong decision.

In Washington, Riehli said, the view of the war is “intensely partisan.” Among Democrats, an overwhelming 84 percent said it was a mistake, while an even larger share of Republicans, 93 percent, said it was the right decision. Among voters who identified themselves as independents, 62 percent said it was a mistake.

Voters’ economic concerns will be a key factor in choosing between Attorney General Christine Gregoire and former state Sen. Dino Rossi for governor, the poll showed. Among those surveyed, 38 percent picked the economy and jobs as the top issue in deciding how to vote for governor – more than twice the number who picked either education or taxes, which were each selected by 14 percent of voters contacted.

Concerns over the economy are particularly high in Western Washington, where 62 percent of those surveyed in King County and half of those in the rest of the metropolitan Puget Sound region said the economy is worse now than it was four years ago.

In Eastern Washington, only about one voter in three was likely to say the economy was worse than four years ago. But Riehli noted that’s not necessarily a ringing endorsement, because nearly half said it was the same as 2000, and there was no way of telling whether they thought the economy was good and remaining the same, or bad and not getting better.

The economy poses an interesting dilemma for Gregoire, who, like outgoing Gov. Gary Locke, is a Democrat, Riehli said. Those who think the economy is getting worse are far more likely to support her, while those who think it is getting better are more likely to support Republican Rossi, who is running as an agent of change and a foe of the status quo.

“At what point does the attorney general say the governor has screwed up the economy?” wondered Riehli.

Voters in the survey were more likely to say state government does more harm than good to the economy in Washington. Nearly half said it hurts economic growth, while only slightly over a third said it helps. By a slight margin, voters also were more likely to say that tax breaks to large employers are a boost to the economy. Half said they help create and keep jobs in the state, while 44 percent said they divert resources that could be better spent on services like education and health care.

An overwhelming majority – nearly three-fourths of those surveyed – also said the state should expand health insurance programs for low-income people.

Dee Ingle, of Wenatchee, another one of the voters surveyed, hopes the state can find more ways to help small businesses the way it helped the Boeing Co. with tax breaks in exchange for building its new jetliner in Washington.

“Seems like you’ve got to be a major player to get help,” Ingle said.

She isn’t sure exactly what the state can do to improve the economy, but she will be listening for candidates with good plans.

“I don’t have a good answer. If I did, I guess I’d be running,” she said.