Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- There is no doubt now that the economy is, and will remain, the No. 1 issue in this year's presidential election -- and very likely influence who the nominees will be.

Barring a major setback in Iraq or the war on terrorism, the economic slowdown, and the guessing game about whether it falls into a recession, has set the stage for another long political battle over how to create new business investment, jobs and economic growth.

"Americans are most likely to mention aspects of the economy as the country's most important problem, followed by the war in Iraq," the Gallup Poll said last week. "Top-of-mind concern about the economy ... is now as high as it has been in about a year and a half."

The clearest sign of the economy's influence in the nominating contests came last week in Michigan, where the jobless rate soared to 7.4 percent, the highest in the nation.

Mitt Romney, whose early business career was spent plowing venture capital into promising companies that created jobs, won the GOP primary there convincingly with an optimistic message of investment and economic growth. He trounced John McCain, who said the state's lost jobs were "not coming back."

It was a must-win for Romney, who was born and raised there as the son of a popular governor, George Romney. But his victory also sent a timely reminder that both parties were in danger of forgetting last year: "It's the economy, stupid."

Whatever Romney's weaknesses may be on other issues, he certainly knows supply-side economics and how to unleash the power of the free market through tax-cut incentives to unlock the investment capital needed to innovate, create, compete and grow.

McCain's disturbing opposition to President Bush's tax cuts, a position he changed last year but one that suggested growth economics was not his strong suit, certainly helped Romney. Michigan has already been hurt badly by higher taxes, and Romney was running on cutting them.

But there was another image that helped him, too -- one of a take-charge, business-minded executive who has run a large investment company and who knows what works and exudes optimism about America's underestimated economic resilience.

Optimism seemed to be missing in much of the Democratic field. John Edwards was attacking "greedy" corporations, promising to bombard them with higher taxes and stiffer regulations if he becomes president. Hillary Clinton's campaign took a detour into racial politics, with several below-the-belt attacks on Barack Obama. If either one of them had an economic-growth message, it got lost in the crossfire of their civil-rights feud.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.