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What's the biggest problem facing the country? Democrats and Republicans disagree.

As they barnstorm across the caucus and primary states, the Republican and Democratic frontrunners for the presidential nomination often sound as if they're from different countries, not just different parties.

According to Republicans, the United States faces a daunting list of crises: an existential threat from Islamic extremism, a tidal wave of illegal immigration, a federal government out of control.

Democrats, meanwhile, are focused on the economy: too few good jobs, too much inequality (both gender and racial), too little access to healthcare.

They're not just offering different answers to the nation's problems; they're asking different questions.

Two examples from candidates high in the polls:

At a rally in Virginia last month, Republican Ted Cruz discussed illegal immigration, Planned Parenthood, terrorism, Iran, Israel, healthcare and the Common Core education standards — all before he even mentioned the economy. Even then, it was only as part of a promise to rein in “federal agencies that descend like locusts on small businesses, killing jobs.”

At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last week, Hillary Clinton flipped the script, addressing the economy first, national security second. “I want to be a president who gets the economy moving for everybody and gets incomes rising and more good paying jobs,” she said. “And I want to be a president that keeps us safe and secure and takes on the threats and dangers that we face,” she added.

The priority gap is no accident; both candidates are reflecting the preferences of their parties' core voters.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll last month, taken after the San Bernardino attack, found that a plurality of Republicans listed terrorism first when asked what issue would be most important in their choice for president. Democrats and independents said the economy.

Among Republicans, 38% cited terrorism as the most important issue, and 29% named the economy. Among Democrats, 38% cited the economy, and only 17% named terrorism.

Liberals and conservatives haven't always disagreed on priorities. As recently as 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, voters in both parties listed the economy as their top concern. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, voters in both parties said terrorism came first.

A catastrophe can sometimes create consensus — at least on what the problem is. But that hasn't happened in the case of Islamic State.

Looking at the whole population — not just Democrats and Republicans — terrorism-firsters are in the minority. Among all voters in the ABC-Post poll, 33% listed the economy as their top concern; only 26% cited terrorism.

And that creates a challenge for Republican candidates as the campaign accelerates in the new year. To win the hearts of conservatives in the GOP nomination contest, they've been competing with each other mostly on noneconomic issues. To build a broad coalition of voter support in the general election, the Republican nominee is going to need to deliver an appealing message about creating jobs. At this point, most GOP candidates haven't spent much time doing that, beyond occasional mentions of lower taxes and fewer regulations.

(The Republican who's had the most to say about the economy so far, oddly enough, is Donald Trump, whose stump speech includes broadsides against free trade with China and a big promise: “We're going to be rich again.”)

If Clinton turns out to be the Democratic nominee, she faces a mirror-image problem: She needs to convince voters who worry about terrorism that she'd produce better foreign policy results than the president she worked for. But she has at least remembered to include security concerns in her stump speech — as she showed last week in New Hampshire.

There's one more consequence of this priority gap, and it affects both sides: Whoever wins the presidential election will lead a country with a deep and persistent partisan divide.

It's little remembered now, but when Obama arrived at the White House in 2009, he enjoyed a brief honeymoon of bipartisan support in public opinion (although not with most Republicans in Congress). That stemmed partly from a national consensus on which problem the new president needed to solve: the recession.

Now that consensus is gone; even terrorist attacks haven't put a new one in its place. That means the next president, whoever he or she turns out to be, won't get even the brief cease-fire in partisan warfare that Obama was given.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @doylemcmanus

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 03, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Not reading from the same script" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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