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Iraq Seen as Major Issue in US Congressional Elections

Iraq is expected to be a central issue in the November congressional elections in the United States. As VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington, both major political parties are shaping their strategies to appeal to voters.

Opinion polls have long suggested that while the public has turned against the war in Iraq, it remains split over how long U.S. troops should stay there.

Discontent over Iraq is providing the Democrats with an opportunity to make gains in both chambers of Congress in the November midterm elections.

But Democrats are divided over whether to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq or keep troops there indefinitely until the Iraqis can maintain their own security.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada acknowledges the divisions within the party. But he also says Democrats are unified on a general approach to the Iraq conflict.

"We all agree there should be a change in the course of the war," he said. "We all agree that there should be a redeployment starting sooner rather than later."

President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, is urging Republicans to put Democrats on the defensive in the upcoming election by describing the Democratic approach to Iraq as cut-and-run.

It is a phrase being used more and more by Republicans including Congressman Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the Speaker of the House, who urged support for the president's policy on Iraq during a recent debate.

"The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to group and regroup and bring the terror back to our shores," he said. "When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run."

Democrats are already firing back at what they see as Republican efforts to make them look weak in the war on terror.

Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel is leading the Democratic effort this year to retake control of the House of Representatives. He spoke on ABC television.

"One good casualty in this war on terror would be partisanship and trying to embarrass people" he said. "What we should be doing is not dividing Americans, but bringing them together in our mission."

Republicans are concerned that President Bush's low public approval ratings may hurt their efforts to retain majorities in both the House and Senate.

But Mr. Bush insists he is ready to help Republican candidates in the election.

"And I look forward to the campaign and I believe we are going to hold the House and the Senate because our philosophy is one that is forward looking and optimistic and has worked. We got a record to run on," he said.

"A president's popularity always has an influence on the midterm elections and President Bush is low," said Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He varies somewhat from being very low to being only moderately low, but he is still low."

The president and congressional Republicans did get some good news recently when Karl Rove was informed that he would not be indicted in connection with the investigation into the leaking of a covert CIA officer's identity three years ago.

"I think it means that Rove can refocus his attention entirely on the president's political standing and that has to be good news for the president," said Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

But political expert Larry Sabato says public concerns about Iraq and high fuel prices may favor the Democrats in November.

"I still think Democrats will gain seats in the House, gain seats in the Senate and gain governorships overall, but they may not gain enough to take control of either the House or the Senate," he said.

Democrats need to win an additional six seats in the 100-member Senate and 15 seats in the 435-member House to retake control of both chambers in the November elections.