Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his party have made it clear that the final weeks of the elections will be about two issues: national security and the economic recovery.

The war in Iraq, and our efforts to help the Iraqis' fledgling democracy overcome its terrorist insurgency, is the administration's biggest political challenge right now. Still, polls show a 51 percent majority believes Iraq is a key battle in the war on terrorism, and most Americans, 50 percent to 42 percent, say the country is safer today than it was before Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, a growing economy is fast emerging as a big political plus for Bush and his party that they intend to promote for all it's worth.

The economy has faced huge obstacles as a result of Sept. 11, the Enron and WorldCom scandals, Hurricane Katrina and a sharp spike in oil costs that pushed gasoline prices to record levels. But it's also shown resilience, largely due to the innovation and productivity of American businesses, with the help of Bush's well-timed tax cuts, which injected the economy with the liquidity needed to recover.

As this is written, the price of a barrel of crude oil in the world market had plunged to the $57 to $58 range, down sharply from the $78 high that severely squeezed our economy, fueled inflation and threatened to short-circuit the Bush recovery.

Cheaper oil has led to a precipitous decline in gas prices from a high of $3 or more to nearly $2 or less for a gallon of regular in some states. It couldn't come at a better time for the Republicans, who are going to need every break they can get to hold down their expected losses in the House and Senate.

The GOP and most Americans are not the only ones breathing a sigh of relief. Lower gas prices are having a rippling effect across the economy, slashing overhead costs for the struggling airline and trucking industries and for businesses in general. Everything from manufacturing to fertilizers are affected by lower oil and gas prices, effectively giving the economy a huge tax cut.

Here are some other reasons why the economy remains the GOP's best issue: -- The Dow is hitting all-time highs, lifting other major stock indexes, as well as stock markets around the world. Markets react to fundamentals in the economy and future trends point to continued growth and expansion here at home and around the globe.

Last week, the Dow was surging toward 12,000, a new benchmark that was unthinkable this summer when Iran loomed as a danger in the Middle East and war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel. But the collapse of oil and gas prices, a pause in the Fed's interest rate hikes and stronger quarterly earnings reports have combined to push the markets higher and, with it, worker and retiree 401(k) pension funds.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.