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Is It The Economy, Stupid?

Over at MSNBC, Norah O'Donnell just reviewed the early exit polls.  No, she didn't tell us who was in front.  She did, however, tell what issues Democratic voters found most important.  As with Iowa, it was the economy, health care, and the Iraq war -- although this time the economy was first by a healthy margin.  (Last week, the economy and war were tied for first.)

I, for one, am glad.  We all know Barack Obama can run an inspiring campaign and build a movement.  And, lord knows, that's important.  As I've said, movements are the ultimate source of political power.  (That's even more true in the internet age, when it's easier to tap these movements for thousands of small donations.)

Still, by running a campaign so wrapped up in the idea of transcending the politics of division, he's inevitably strayed away from the issues themselves.  You see this when he gives his speeches, which certainly touch all the bases -- from universal health care to fighting terrorism -- but fail to dwell on policies in the way that either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards routinely do. 

And that raises one concern: If an issue suddenly comes to dominate the election, will people have the same enthusiasm for the kind of campaign Obama -- who looks more and more like the presumptive nominee -- is running?   Instead of simply demanding "change," will they be more interested in who's got the most convincing message on jobs and alleviating economic anxiety?

I confess that one reason this is suddenly on my mind is the advertisement I've seen a few times on the television, here in Michigan.  It's from Mitt Romney -- the Democrats aren't campaigning here, as you may have heard -- and it's unlike the ads he ran early in the campaign.  There's no culture war stuff and no negative attacks on his opponents.  Instead, it's all about promting investment and keeping jobs in the U.S.

That sort of message obviously plays better here in Michigan, which is on economic life support, than in most of the country.  And, depending on tonight's returns, it's entirely possible Romney will be out of the race a week from now.  But it's a reminder that this campaign could be fought on different terrain than it's being fought right now.  And, as Paul Krugman noted Monday, the shaky economy could become a much bigger concern in coming months.

Let me clear: I've seen enough in the last few days -- and, really, last few weeks -- to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on questions like these.  And, as I wrote earlier, it would be wrong to think of him as light on substance.  He's got the brains, a well-developed set of policies, and a slew of bright advisers.  Still, if Obama does well tonight among those voters calling the economy their top concern, I'll feel even better about his election prospects in November.

--Jonathan Cohn