President Bush and Republicans have gained some ground in their bid to hold onto Congress as a sustained GOP effort to portray Democrats and Iraq war critics as appeasing terrorists has swayed voters.
Democrats, however, hold a wide advantage when it comes to who should control Congress with seven weeks to the midterm elections.
The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that voters view Republicans and Democrats as equally capable of protecting the country; Democrats had an edge last month. Approval of Bush’s overall job performance also improved and the president earned slightly better marks for his handling of Iraq and the war on terrorism.
But while the poll of 1,501 adults conducted Monday through Wednesday showed gains in the GOP’s standing, Republicans still risk losing their grip on the House and Senate.
By a double-digit margin, likely voters say they still are more inclined to put Democrats in control of Congress after a dozen years of Republican rule.
The marginal shifts in public sentiment toward Republicans follow a campaign-season span in which Bush, members of his Cabinet and rank- and-file lawmakers pounded Democrats on national security. In the days surrounding the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Republicans have vilified war critics as defeatists who embolden terrorists, and likened them to Nazi appeasers.
Democrats have compared the character attacks to 1950s McCarthyism and have railed about the GOP politicizing the issue, but the blows have taken a toll.
“I’m not surprised to see a little bit of slippage post-September 11th,” said Diane Farrell, the Democrat challenging Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., in a competitive House race that’s focused on Iraq and terrorism.
However, Farrell said, compared with previous elections, “Democrats are in a much more solid position as it relates to Democrats being viewed as equally committed when it comes to protecting Americans and our national security.”
In the 2002 and 2004 elections, Republicans successfully painted their rivals as weak on national security and they are using the same strategy this year. Democrats have aggressively tried to rebut the attacks as they push to gain 15 House seats and six Senate seats to take control.
The president’s approval rating was in the low 30s last month. Now, 40 percent of likely voters approve of his job performance — better but still below the comfort zone for Republicans.
Bush made gains among married women, suburban voters, moderate Republicans and those who live in the Northeast, which could prove problematic for Democrats hoping to defeat clusters of GOP congressmen in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
In a mixed bag for Republicans, more Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. Still, those people account for only 33 percent of the population.
“We seem to be making more enemies than friends right now with pretty much everybody,” said Josh Maze, 22, of Bloomington, Ind., an independent who voted for Bush in 2004 but was down on both the president and the GOP-controlled Congress.
Americans continue to be dissatisfied with Congress. As in last month’s poll, only 29 percent approved of the job lawmakers are doing. Likely voters were more likely to disapprove of Congress.
“I would like to see somebody with some guts up there, in the White House and in Congress,” said Dominick Fondo, 58, of Hollywood, Fla., who says he leans toward Republicans but is “not too pleased with them right now.”
Despite such dismal sentiments, Americans are conflicted about whether to fire incumbents this fall. Three-in-five likely voters said most members of Congress deserve to be voted out of office but about the same also said their own representative should be re-elected.
The AP-Ipsos poll asked Americans if the election for the House were held today, would they vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in their district.
Democrats had a 14-point edge among likely voters, 53 percent to 39 percent. That’s narrower than last month but still a wide gap. Since August, the GOP has attracted more married men, young people and those who live in the Northeast.
Republicans also have drawn even on the question of who would best protect the country, with 43 percent of likely voters siding with Democrats and 41 percent choosing Republicans, numbers within the poll’s margin of error.
Sentiment tilted more toward Democrats in August but Republicans attracted more men, young people, minorities, and people from the Northeast and Midwest.
“Democrats are good for the people, but I don’t think they’re that good on terrorism,” said Alice Davis, 59 and a Democrat from Cleveland who epitomizes the challenge Democrats face _ convincing even members of their own party that they are tough on terrorists.
Still, Democrats get higher marks than Republicans for which party would best handle the unpopular Iraq war. Forty-six percent of likely voters said Democrats and 40 percent said Republicans.
While half of Americans say the United States is making progress in the war on terrorism, half also say the country is losing ground in Iraq.
The split sentiment is a sign that Republicans haven’t convinced the public Iraq is the “central front” in the war on terrorism and haven’t overcome a Democratic drumbeat that the war has been a costly distraction from the worldwide effort to eliminate al-Qaida.
But it also shows that Democrats haven’t locked in their position with voters either.
Republicans contend they can win the national security argument if they can link the two conflicts and emphasize national security, which historically has been the party’s strength.
Democrats contend they can win control of Congress if voters view Iraq _ and the problems there _ on its own.
The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points for all adults and 4 percentage points for likely voters.
Associated Press Writers Will Lester and Kasie Hunt and AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press