It's two weeks away, and the 2006 midterm elections look like a referendum on Iraq, a war in which President Bush and his party have lost not just the political center but significant chunks of their base.
An improving economy notwithstanding, opposition to the war remains the prime issue driving congressional voter preference. And the war's critics include not just eight in 10 Democrats but 64 percent of independents, 40 percent of conservatives, 35 percent of evangelical white Protestants and a quarter of Republicans.
It matters: Among the four in 10 registered voters who favor the war in Iraq, 73 percent support the Republicans in their congressional districts. But many more, nearly six in 10, oppose the war, and 78 percent favor Democrats for the House.
That spells a continued, dramatic Democratic lead: Fifty-four percent of registered voters in this ABC News/Washington Post poll prefer the Democrats in their districts, 41 percent the Republicans. This is the highest level of Democratic preference we've seen in ABC/Post surveys this close to Election Day since 1984.
Among likely voters, the race is a nearly identical 55-41 percent.
Another result underscores the sense of urgency many Americans give to this election: Fifty-eight percent of registered voters call the 2006 races more important to the country than past congressional elections in their lifetime. Democrats, in particular, say so -- 69 percent of them versus 49 percent of Republicans.
The Democratic lead comes mainly from the center, which simply is not holding for the Republicans: Independents, the quintessential swing voters, favor Democrats for the House by 28 percentage points, 59-31 percent. That compares with a three-point Democratic edge among independents in the 2004 exit poll; indeed, this is better than House Democrats have done among independents in exit polls since 1982.
But Democratic House candidates are also poaching on Republican turf, notably winning support from 29 percent of conservatives compared with 17 percent in 2004, and, albeit in less of a shift, by 30 percent of evangelical white Protestants versus 24 percent in 2004.
Democratic congressional candidates also now lead by 54-42 percent among men -- a group the Democrats haven't won since 1992. And 10 percent of Republicans favor the Democrats in their districts -- a small group but greater than the level of Democratic defections to Republican candidates, which is just 4 percent.
A further problem for the Republicans is the war-related desire for change, and specifically, for a change from the current Republican leadership. Just 37 percent of Americans approve of President Bush's overall job performance, down five points from September. He's been rated lower than that just once in his career, when he received 33 percent approval in May -- and then, unlike now, rising gasoline prices were partly to blame.
Nearly twice as many registered voters say they'll cast their ballot as a way to show opposition to the president (31 percent) as to support him (17 percent); that is triple the level of anti-Clinton voting in the 1998 midterms, during the height of the Lewinsky scandal.