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Iraq aside, economy tops voter concerns

Democratic presidential hopefuls may try to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the economy.

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The economy may be playing second fiddle to the Iraq war in the race for the White House in 2008, but pocketbook issues are emerging as important voter concerns.

Even though jobs are relatively plentiful, polls show strong undercurrents of public anxiety about healthcare, gasoline prices, and the effects of global competition.

Many families feel they are falling behind with incomes that aren't keeping pace with inflation.

The result, analysts say, is a financial landscape that may benefit Democrats, as the party now out of presidential power.

In a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month, for example, 34 percent of Americans cited Iraq as the top national priority. The next closest issue was healthcare, at 15 percent. But others selected economic issues including job creation and growth (8 percent), energy and the cost of gas (6 percent), and the federal budget deficit (4 percent).

"You have to add them up," but 33 percent of Americans see an economic issue as the top priority, says Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "Collectively, economic issues contribute to the generalized worry about the direction of the country."

The electorate is in a generally sour mood, he says. America's travails in Iraq are the key reason, but economic issues aren't far behind.

A similar dynamic was visible in the 2006 race for Congress, when Democrats recaptured control in part by tapping economic anxieties.

As a result, the policy environment in Washington has already shifted. This week, in a nod to workers who feel left behind, the national minimum wage jumped to $5.85 an hour, after being at $5.15 for a decade.

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