Months ago, this column focused on the fact that Americans seemed unusually unsettled and unsure about their personal views and their future, as well as that of the nation. As early as late spring, I noted a growing concern over the government's slow response to the declining economy, an uneasiness about national security, and an overall feeling that no one seemed to be leading the country.
Since then, President Bush has suffered the first real signs of a decline in his strong post-Sept. 11 popularity. The public continues to feel uncertain about not only the state of theirs and the nation's pocketbook, but also about how much "homeland security" we really have -- and at what cost in dollars and civil liberties -- as well as the consequences of a possible unilateral invasion of Iraq.
As predicted, all this uneasiness has resulted in a 2002 electorate that doesn't seem able to make up its mind on which political party can best provide decisiveness and direction for America's future.
In this space, we've chronicled the shifting political sands in places like Florida, where an unknown Democrat named Bill McBride has strong behind-the-scenes support from powerful party leaders. McBride is tempting the party faithful to bypass the better-known Janet Reno in favor of his more moderate candidacy. They hope that McBride would stand a better chance of beating the seemingly invincible Republican incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush and "avenging" the results of the 2000 presidential battle in Florida. McBride's late-in-the-game surge might provide that hope.
Florida is not the only state where voters appear to be taking a look at "breaking away" from more predictable behavior. President Bush's home state of Texas offers another example. There, the African-American Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, is reportedly receiving heavy backing from that city's conservative business leaders and is leading in several polls against his GOP opponent, state Attorney General John Cornyn.
Some of Kirk's strongest support appears to be coming from the same type of atypical alliance that supports McBride in Florida -- including Republicans who personally know Kirk and supporters of former President Bill Clinton. This is doubly surprising because Republican Cornyn is seeking to take the seat of popular retiring Texas GOP Sen. Phil Gramm.
The Florida and Texas races are representative of the near-schizophrenic character the voting public is now exhibiting across the country. And issues polls from coast to coast also illustrate the point: too many voters have too little idea what the Republicans or the Democrats stand for and what policies they might put into play if elected.
Here's a warning to all candidates in this unusual election year -- be on guard, because the public will abandon you in a wink. Case in point: Bill Simon, the GOP's nominee for governor of California. State political pundits were shocked when the unapologetically conservative Simon knocked off former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan last March in the party's primary. With incumbent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis reeling from public disapproval of his handling of last year's California energy crisis, Simon appeared to have a genuine chance to stage a major upset over a well-financed and politically sophisticated incumbent.
But a $78 million fraud verdict last month against Simon's investment firm threw his effort into disarray, forcing the Simon campaign to drastically cut staff and try to re-establish credibility. Easy come, easy go. And just as with the mentioned races in Florida, Texas, and many other states, the political winds might shift three or four more times before Davis and Simon are finished.
There will likely be no rhyme or reason to how the American people select their political leaders this year. Many of the results will likely hinge on how, on any given day, people feel about their own personal safety and security. But the one characteristic that candidates hoping for success might do well to display at this unique time in American history is decisiveness.
From the president's four-week holiday in Texas, which has gone from a vacation to a "working vacation" to a venue for a dog-and-pony "economic forum," Bush and other leaders are leaving Americans feeling as unsure of things as the leaders who represent them. "Am I rich or poor? Am I safe, or will I be the victim of terror? Am I working or on vacation?" they are asking.
Of late, no elected official seems to have answers to these questions. As a result, voters across America are still trying to figure out what their own answers will be when they go to the polls.
Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at www.In-siderAdvantage.com.
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