Republicans Inch Closer in ’06 Election Preference

Terrorism has inched up in importance in the 2006 midterm elections and Republicans have regained an edge in trust to handle it -- helping George W. Bush's party move closer to the Democrats in congressional vote preference.

The Republicans lead the Democrats in trust to handle terrorism by 48-41 percent among registered voters in this ABC News poll, a flip from a seven-point Democratic advantage last month. And 16 percent now call terrorism the top issue in their vote, a slight five-point gain.

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2006 Republican election

The Republicans' edge on handling terrorism is still vastly below their 35-point lead on the issue heading into the 2002 midterm elections. But it's still their best issue -- the one Bush rode to re-election. And part of their gain is among independents, the key swing voters in any election: They now split between the parties in trust to handle terrorism, after favoring the Democrats by nine points last month.

ISSUES -- On issues, Iraq and the economy continue to share top billing in voters' minds. But terrorism has moved up in mentions as the most important issue, from nine percent in June to 11 percent in early August to 16 percent now. This week's focus on the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks may have played a role; so, too, has the decline in gasoline prices -- cited as a top issue by 15 percent last month, but just five percent now.

Clearly, the more voters focus on terrorism, the better for the Republicans in November: Among registered voters who call terrorism their top issue, 77 percent say they'll vote for the Republican candidate in their district.

Democrats, for their part, would rather keep Iraq and the economy center stage. Two in 10 registered voters call Iraq their top issue; about as many cite the economy. Democrats win the support of these voters handily -- 68 percent in both groups currently back the Democratic candidate in their congressional district.

All told, 50 percent of registered voters now favor the Democratic congressional candidate in their C.D., 42 percent the Republican -- a narrower Democratic advantage than the 13-point lead they held all summer, and half what it was last January. It's a similar 51-44 percent among likely voters.

IRAQ/TERRORISM -- The Democrats face challenges on Iraq as well. While the party's candidates lead widely among the voters who call Iraq their top issue, registered voters overall are now evenly split over which party they better trust to handle Iraq: Forty-three percent trust the Democrats, 44 percent the Republicans. The Democrats had led on Iraq by as many as 13 points last May.

One reason could be the lack of a clear alternative strategy: While 60 percent of registered voters don't think Bush has a clear plan what do in Iraq, 69 percent don't think the Democrats have a clear plan, either.

Moreover, most Americans, 57 percent, continue to see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism, as Bush has steadily suggested. That has been more or less stable since fall 2004, after peaking at 77 percent just after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.

People who see Iraq as part of the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism are more apt to support the Iraq war -- and to support Bush and his party as well. That's the apparent strategy behind Bush's inclusion of Iraq in his 9/11 anniversary address Monday night.

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