Illinois delegates in a survey identify one priority for their candidates: Fix the economy

As the economy has struggled, so have the suburbs.

While the Chicago-area unemployment rate has dropped a full 2½ points since 2009, 8.8 percent of workers remain jobless.

As dependence on government health care for the poor climbed by 30 percent over six years in Illinois, it rose more than 75 percent in most suburban counties.

Food stamp use is up, too — 133 percent in DuPage County between 2006 and 2011, for example.

Those indicators point to more suburban families facing daily worries about finances — and wondering which presidential candidate, if any, can help.

So economics are at the top of many people's minds as Republicans meet for their national convention this week in Tampa, Fla., followed by Democrats next week in Charlotte, N.C. The parties differ sharply on how to kick-start the economy, and so do convention delegates from Illinois surveyed by the Daily Herald.

President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats in Congress claim credit for preventing the recession from becoming worse — saving banks, bailing out the auto industry and approving a health care law they say ensures people down on their luck can get medical care if they get sick.

“He was dealt a very difficult hand from the previous administration,” said Lauren Beth Gash of Highland Park, a convention delegate for Obama. “And I think voters get that.”

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans have been on the attack, trying to win independent suburban voters.

“My personal belief is that the quality that Mitt Romney brings is his ability to govern,” said Romney delegate Bill Cadigan of Winnetka. “He's a former governor of a state where 85 percent of the legislature was Democratic, and he got things done.”

The Daily Herald survey of Democratic and Republican convention delegates from across Illinois illustrates the challenge for both sides of finding middle ground and getting their messages out to voters from the convention floors. Eighty-seven delegates from both parties responded to the survey.

Nearly 90 percent of Republican respondents say Obama should back a full extension of tax cuts dating from President George W. Bush's administration to help fix the economy, rather than ending the tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year, as Obama has proposed. Only one Democratic respondent agreed.

About 71 percent of Democrats said Obama should work toward passage of his own jobs plan, which includes public works spending, government aid to prevent teacher layoffs and funds to rehab schools and foreclosed homes.

About 21 percent said the president should target more infrastructure spending to improve the economy. No Republican survey respondents favored Obama's jobs plan, and only one voted for more infrastructure spending.

With the Nov. 6 election looming, candidates could be running out of time to make a case.

“You're getting to the point where it's late in the game,” said Matt Streb, a Northern Illinois University political scientist. “It's getting harder and harder to change people's perceptions.”

Both sides are watching unemployment numbers closely. When Obama was sworn into office in January 2009, the Chicago-area unemployment rate reported by the Illinois Department of Employment security was 8 percent.

As the recession wore on, unemployment topped out locally at 11.3 percent in December 2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the economy added more jobs than expected in July, when Chicago area unemployment was 8.8 percent.

No sitting president since Franklin Roosevelt has won re-election with a jobless rate above 8 percent. However, analysts predict that continued positive job numbers — however murky — over the next several months would be a strong boost for Obama,

While voters are focusing on the economy, they don't necessarily look at their own job situations when making a pick for president, Streb said.

“They look at the nation as a whole,” Streb said. “They just have a general sense that people are good, or they're not so good.”

An individual job loss, he said, is more likely to be blamed on a boss than on a politician. But presidents are more likely than members of Congress to get credit or blame from voters when it comes to the economy.

Cristina Castro, an Obama delegate from Elgin, said she hopes voters will take a long look at incumbent Republican members of Congress — many of them freshmen — if they think nothing's getting done under the Capitol dome.

“Who's producing and not producing?” Castro said.

But delegate Ian Brenson, of LaGrange, noted that politicians can create conditions that encourage the economy, and he cites Republicans' push to extend tax cuts for poor and wealthy Americans alike as an example.

“Uncertainty and penalizing the successful do not help,” he said.

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Watch on TV

As convention delegates begin arriving in Tampa, TV networks promise plenty of coverage today and throughout the week. Many scheduled news shows are broadcasting from the convention, and here's where to watch prime-time coverage.

Ÿ Fox News begins a one-hour convention special at 8 p.m. today, with coverage continuing 9-10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Ÿ MSNBC will provide prime-time coverage of the convention from 6 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday.

Ÿ CNN will start its coverage from the convention floor at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Ÿ ABC, NBC and CBS will offer one hour of coverage Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, including the main speeches.

Ÿ CSPAN is planning wall-to-wall coverage all day each day.

Ÿ And many sources, including the major networks, news networks, CSPAN and PBS will stream convention events live online all day.

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