From door-knockers to phone bankers to families sitting around the kitchen table, pre-election conversation reflects a deep unease with the economy.

With newspaper business sections reporting declining gasoline prices, low official unemployment and a skyrocketing stock market, shouldn’t voters want to “stay the course”? Well, no.

News coverage of soaring stock prices creates the impression that all Americans are receiving fat dividend checks. In fact, reports the Economic Policy Institute, fewer U.S. households owned any stock in 2004 than in 2001, the first decline on record. Only a third of all Americans had any stock valued over $5,000 and, among those who did, their investment was in the form of retirement accounts that are costly to convert into cash.

There are big winners, though. The EPI says that 10 percent of the population controls 80 percent of Wall Street’s wealth, with the top 1 percent calling the shots on a whopping 39.9 percent. Indeed, the rich are getting filthy richer and richer while the rest of us rob Peter to pay Paul.

Gasoline prices are down, but still around $2. An unscientific survey of candidate debates on C-SPAN and reports from street campaigners reveals that it is not changing voters’ discontent.

Low unemployment figures neglect to take into account stagnant wages, says the EPI, nor do they show the impact of massive layoffs in the auto industry, destruction of the Gulf region and acceleration of shipping jobs overseas.

Perhaps more than any other issue, the economic gloom revolves around health care. The Annual Health Confidence Survey released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, funded by corporations and unions, indicated 6 in 10 Americans rate the health care system fair or poor, the first decline measured by the institute.

Support for a single-payer “Medicare for all” health care system is growing. Around the country, Americans are signing petitions, passing resolutions in union halls and town councils, and sharply demanding candidates take a stand on universal, affordable health care. It is emerging as a cutting edge issue, building a base that can force a Democratic Congress to act. It should top the post-election agenda.