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Experts: Iraq Likely to Become Major US Election Issue

Opposition Democrats hope to seize control of one or both chambers of the U.S. Congress in the November mid-term elections, in large part because of voter dismay over the situation in Iraq. In the first of a two-part series, VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more on how Iraq could impact this year's U.S. congressional elections.

Republicans have controlled both the Senate and House of Representatives since 1994. But with opinion polls indicating low public approval for both the president and the Republican-controlled Congress, Democrats see the 2006 elections as their best opportunity in years to retake one or both houses of Congress.

Democrats are eager to highlight the public's dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq, even as they acknowledge their own party's divisions over how long U.S. troops should stay there. "Where is the plan? Where is the president's plan to get us out of Iraq? He is the commander in chief. We are not," said Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader.

President Bush and his Republican supporters in Congress have been on the defensive over Iraq for months.

But in recent weeks, the Republicans have tried to refocus the debate on the Democrats and their lack of a unified plan for Iraq.

"Here is how you win elections. You win elections by believing something. You win elections by having a plan to protect the American people from terrorist attack," said President Bush, who spoke about the issue at a recent news conference.

Democratic political strategists like Mark Mellman see Iraq as one of several issues that could tilt the November election against the Republican Party. "I think it is fair to say that Republicans would like this to be an anti-incumbent year. The truth is, it is an anti-Republican year. But it is a distinction without much of a difference because if you look at who the incumbents are [in Congress], there are a lot more of them than there are of us," he said.

Democrats also point to high domestic fuel prices and the negative public view of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina last year.

But Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway sees the national mood as more anti-incumbent in general and not specifically anti-Republican. "The idea of nationalizing this election, whether you are nationalizing it and trying to make it a referendum against George W. Bush, whether you are trying to nationalize it about this culture of corruption nonsense, or you try to nationalize it according to ethics or you are trying to nationalize according to the war in Iraq. To me, those will be failed strategies if that is all you are running on," she said.

Republicans believe a majority of the public opposes a quick military exit from Iraq and that the November congressional elections will depend more on local issues and personalities than national trends.

Political analysts note that congressional midterm elections are often decided by which party does a better job of mobilizing their supporters to get out and vote.

University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato says the downbeat public view of the situation in Iraq could depress Republican voter turnout and act as a catalyst for anti-war Democrats to go to the polls. "They see Iraq as a tunnel without a light at the end of it. It is difficult to see how we are going to get out without simply leaving, and in the end it is up to the Iraqis. That seems to be the view of most Americans, that we have done our part and it is time to begin the process of leaving," he said.

Democrats need to gain 15 seats to take control of the House and six seats to gain a majority in the Senate.