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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

If you want evidence that Congress is up for grabs this year, look to the countryside. A new survey takes a sampling of rural voters. People who live beyond the reach of cities and suburbs have voted strongly Republican for years. Now this survey asked raw voters a question that we are asking all this fall. What matters most as you consider election 2006?

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Rural voters are critical for Republicans because Democrats dominate cities and the parties split the suburbs, says Republican political consultant Bill Greener.

Mr. BILL GREENER (Republican Political Consultant): I don't think you can overstate how critical it is. And rural voters have given their votes to Republicans over the years, and it has been a vote that if we do not do well among, it's pretty hard to see how you continue to prevail.

BERKES: So Greener should be concerned about a new poll released today of 529 likely voters in rural portions of the most competitive congressional districts. Greener supervised the survey, which was conducted for the non-partisan Center for Rural Strategies by Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): I would have expected Republicans to be doing better in rural areas in part because rural voters are less hostile to Bush. They are less likely to say the country is going in the wrong direction. There's a lot less anger around incumbents in rural areas. There's a lot more satisfaction.

BERKES: But there's an even Republican-Democratic split among the rural voters surveyed. More than half supported President Bush two years ago, and most say they don't regret that choice. So what makes some think twice about supporting Republican candidates now?

Pollster Anna Greenberg.

Ms. GREENBERG: Concerns about the war in Iraq, which are serious in rural areas, and concerns about the economy are just making it very challenging for Republican candidates to get any traction with rural voters.

BERKES: The war in Iraq was one of the top issues listed in the poll. A disproportionate number of troops from rural areas are serving and dying in Iraq. Three-fourths of those surveyed have a family member, friend or acquaintance who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan, including 72-year-old Jacqueline Wimberly(ph) of Elgin, Arizona. She has never voted Democratic, but she's thinking about it now, given a great-grandson just back from one war and training for the other.

Ms. JACQUELINE WIMBERLY (Elgin, Arizona): The excitement of using all of the tools and weapons he was trained for has dissolved in his life. And it has left a hollowness, thinking that not only is baby David old enough to go back for his second tour over there, but he's beginning to hate the idea of what he's being trained for.

BERKES: Wimberly wonders whether Republicans have been too aggressive abroad. In rural Putnam County, Ohio, retired nurse Jan Schimuller(ph) says she's leaning Republican, but she's open to change due to a poor economy.

Ms. JAN SCHIMULLER (Putnam County, Ohio): My daughter is 40 and she's single. And it's like you're either very wealthy or you're going down with the ship, as she says, because it is very hard to get anywhere unless you make a lot more than most people are making.

BERKES: Most of the nation's poorest counties are rural and rural places have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs. Democrats have an opportunity to cut Republican rural strength. But the survey also gives Republicans confidence, says political consultant Bill Greener.

Mr. GREENER: Republicans have an advantage in these areas, according to the survey, when the discussion focuses on security. I think there is a countervailing pressure when you put into place the security issue and how people feel about that.

BERKES: And security is the issue for 39-year-old Sherman Crum(ph), a bank controller in Caldwell, Ohio who isn't sure how he'll vote in the senate and congressional races there.

Mr. SHERMAN CRUM (Caldwell, Ohio): I mean, that's one of the most basic duties of the federal government, is to secure our country. If they can't keep track of who's coming in the border down there by Mexico and we can't keep track of who's flying in and out of our airports, we put ourselves at grave risk.

BERKES: Many rural voters also have a strong connection with values issues. In fact, a values strategy in rural counties is credited with the president's win two years ago. And at this same time two years ago, a poll of rural voters had them evenly split just like they are now. But by election day, Republican rural strength returned.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can find the complete poll results at NPR.org.

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