Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Americans often receive a skewed picture of their country's deepest concerns when the news is filtered through the nation's capital.

All too often, those with the loudest voices get the most attention in the nightly news. The issues they put forward are not necessarily the issues that connect with people in what I like to call "the real world" outside the Washington Beltway.

Take, for example, New Jersey, where polls showed last month that voters' biggest concerns, by a whopping 41 percent margin, were state and local taxes -- dwarfing all other issues.

While major issues such as illegal immigrants, skyrocketing gas prices and the war in Iraq were dominating the nightly news shows and taking up much, if not all, of Congress' attention, they were not what worried New Jersey voters the most. In fact, it wasn't even close.

What has got New Jersey really stirred up, almost to the point of an old-fashioned taxpayer rebellion, is Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine's proposal to raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, on top of increasing property taxes, which also are a major complaint among angry homeowners.

"When you ask people what's bothering them, with the whole world of troubles to pick from and without any prompting, to draw 41 percent is a very big number," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, who polled 1,414 registered voters between April 18 to April 24.

Well, one might say these are local issues that have little or no impact on the national political crosscurrents assailing the country right now.

Not so.

Both the sales-tax hike and the state's oppressive property taxes are becoming big issues in New Jersey's U.S. Senate race, where state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the Republican candidate, is focusing on nonfederal issues just like these. And it's one of the reasons he is running even with Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez in the polls.

"Kean knows President Bush isn't popular in New Jersey, and so far he has decided to focus his campaign on local issues rather than sweeping national concerns," reported John Fund in the Wall Street Journal last week.

What are New Jersey's other top concerns? Immigration? Gas prices? Nope. Dishonest "politicians and corruption" are No. 2 at 8 percent. The state's budget deficit, education and the economy are even lesser concerns. Notably, gas prices drew 3 percent of the respondents and immigration 1 percent.

In Michigan, where automotive layoffs have plunged its economy into a crisis, driving the unemployment rate to 6.8 percent, the biggest concern is jobs.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.