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DON GONYEA, host:

With election day just a little more than three months away, we asked our MORNING EDITION polling team, Democrat Stan Greenberg and Republican Glen Bolger, to take the pulse of likely voters in the most competitive districts. While the GOP did slightly better with voters in battleground districts than in a nationwide sample, the numbers still seem to indicate trouble for the party in power.

NPR's National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

We tried to do something a little bit different in this poll. Given that mid-term congressional elections are not conducted nationally but district by district, we decided to throw out those seats where the incumbent is safe and look only at districts where either party might win.

Here's Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Democrat Pollster): This one is different than any of our prior polls, and it's different than any of the national polls that you get through the national media. This is a poll only done in the 50 competitive House races where, in fact, control of the House of Representatives will be decided.

LIASSON: Forty of these 50 seats are currently held by Republicans, 10 by Democrats. And Republican pollster Glenn Bolger says these are the 50 contests where both parties will concentrate their resources.

Mr. GLENN BOLGER (Republican Pollster): This is where the effort's going to be made. This is where the money's going to be spent, and this is where the messages are going to be sharpest. If you don't like politics and you live in one of these districts, you should move. And if you do like politics, you're in for a big treat because it's going to be the battleground. This is where the House hangs in the balance.

LIASSON: In 2004, the total vote in these 50 districts went Republican by about 12 points. In our current survey, voters in these same districts say they would vote for the Democrat over the Republican by about six points.

We asked the question about a generic Democrat or Republican, then we plugged in the names of actual incumbents and challengers. And the numbers only changed by one percentage point.

And the voters seem pretty firm about their choices. Only 18 percent of those favoring a Democrat said there was any chance they'd change their minds. And only 16 percent of those favoring a Republican said they might switch.

Tracie Galla is a public school music teacher at home on maternity leave. She lives in the 4th district of Connecticut, and she plans to vote for Democratic challenger Diane Farrell over the Republican incumbent Chris Shays.

Ms. TRACIE GALLA: I'm afraid that, nationally, there have been a lot of things over the past few years that haven't really gone in the right direction in my opinion. I just think we need a change. Unfortunately, the Republicans, you know, for the most part support what Bush has done, and I just don't agree with it.

LIASSON: But Republicans will be working hard to turn out voters like Julius Brown. Retired and living in South Carolina's 5th district, he favors the Republican challenger Ralph Norman over Democratic incumbent John Spratt.

Mr. JULIUS BROWN: Well, first thing, I don't approve of the general abortion stand that Democrats hold. Second, I believe the tax breaks that Republicans give - even though I didn't benefit much by them - I believe the country did.

LIASSON: Then there are undecided voters like Peggy Beekler, a retired social worker who lives in the third district of Kentucky represented by Republican Anne Northup.

Ms. PEGGY BEEKLER: I'm rather disappointed in the Republicans. I think they've made a mess of things, even though I have been a Republican.

LIASSON: Beekler is not happy about the war, but she's also unhappy about the so-called values issues that Republicans have counted on to get their voters to the polls.

Ms. BEEKLER: I think to do an amendment on the burning the flag would be totally ridiculous. I also think when Bush vetoed the stem cell research, I feel like that's ridiculous because they're just going to destroy all those embryos anyway. So, even though I'm for life, I think that shouldn't have been vetoed.

LIASSON: Beekler represents one of our most surprising findings. On the question of which party would do a better job on, quote, values issues like stem cell research, flag-burning, and gay marriage, Democrats prevailed by their biggest margin in the entire poll - about 51 percent to 37. Again, Stan Greenberg.

Mr. GREENBERG: And when we list values issues like stem cell research, flag-burning, and gay marriage, these are the issues that Republicans took the initiative, used their control of Congress to be voting on, to be talking about. What this says is, by 13 points, voters say they are more likely to vote Democratic because of hearing about these issues, which suggests that the strategy of using the Congress to help the base is one that's driving away a lot of voters.

LIASSON: On other issues - like the war in Iraq or the state of the economy -Democrats have a smaller advantage. Only on the issue of illegal immigration are the parties tied in the view of likely voters in the most competitive districts.

All of which leaves Republican Glenn Bolger hoping that Republicans will be able to rely on what, in the past, has been a superior effort at fundraising and mobilizing voters.

Mr. BOLGER: Again, this is going to come down to, is it an election where the national political environment determines the outcome, or is it an election where what happens on the ground in the individual campaigns is what happens. And we won't know that, obviously, until they count the votes.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

GONYEA: Poll results are at npr.org.

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