At the same time, the Democrats have an eight-point edge in trust to handle the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism, an issue of central importance to Bush and his party, and one on which public preferences have been unsteady this year. A more consistent weakness for Bush, beyond Iraq, has been the economy: Fifty-nine percent disapprove of how he's handling it, with gasoline prices one major irritant.
In fact, the biggest change in top issues in the fall election is in gas prices. Fifteen percent of registered voters now call them the single most important issue in their vote, doubled since June, and now slightly more than the number (11 percent) who call terrorism their top issue. (More, 21 percent apiece, pick Iraq or the economy as their No. 1 issue.)
ELECTION -- Attention on the election is substantial: Sixty-six percent of registered voters are following it closely, far more than said they were at about this time in the 2002 election cycle (just 47 percent). Attention is highest among older and better-educated Americans, and among liberals -- the latter among the Democrats' strongest groups.
Independents, one of the two classic swing voter groups, favor the Democrat in their districts by 55-29 percent. White Catholics, the other, split 54-36 percent.
Even though the Democrats (like the president) are broadly seen as lacking a clear policy on Iraq, discontent with the war clearly helps them. Among the one-fifth of voters who call it their top issue, 69 percent favor the Democrat in their district.
Democrats also win 63 percent of economy voters and 52 percent of health care voters; voters who care most about gas prices break 49-38 percent, also for the Democrats. The Republicans, for their part, lead by large margins among those who care most about either terrorism or immigration.
The attributes of empathy vs. leadership also are important points of differentiation, again with an advantage to the Democrats. People who think the Democrats are more in tune with their needs favor the Democratic candidate in their district by 88-9 percent. People who think the Republicans have stronger leaders favor Republican candidates -- but by a narrower 65-29 percent.
ANTI-INCUMBENCY -- As noted, overall anti-incumbent sentiment is about the same now as in summer 1994. But one difference could mitigate its sting: Anti-incumbency is somewhat more partisan now than it was 12 years ago. In June 1994, 46 percent of Democrats, the party then in control of the House, called themselves anti-incumbent. Today fewer Republicans -- 33 percent -- share that view.
Anti-incumbency peaks at about seven in 10 liberal Democrats, compared with just one in four conservative Republicans. Among all Democrats, more than six in 10 are anti-incumbent, compared with a third of all Republicans. Two-thirds of liberals and six in 10 moderates are anti-incumbent; it's four in 10 among conservatives. And among the swing voter groups independents and white Catholics, six in 10 say they're anti-incumbent.
IRAQ -- Views on Iraq are largely stable, and while the war is unpopular, relatively few Americans are calling for an immediate, complete pullout. Fifty-three percent favor decreasing the number of U.S. troops there, but fewer, 18 percent, call for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces.