RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
There's new evidence this morning that congressional Republican incumbents are losing critical support. Rural voters have been a key part of the Republican base for at least a decade. Now a new survey indicates a stunning shift by those rural voters to Democrats, with the election just 11 days away.
NPR's Howard Berkes has this report from a congressional district in rural southern Indiana.
HOWARD BERKES: It only takes coffee and conversation to put voices to these new numbers. Both are readily available in early morning darkness at Hammond's Family Restaurant in Madison, Indiana. Steady customers turn from characters to caricatures. The walls are smothered with sketches of the faithful, including postal worker Donna Saylor.
Ms. DONNA SAYLOR (Postal Worker): I was one of the first ones to go up.
BERKES: What does yours say?
Ms. SAYLOR: It says, through rain, sleet or hail, the mail must go through, but not till I've had my coffee.
BERKES: Saylor would also find herself reflected in the new survey. It polled 500 rural voters in 41 competitive congressional districts. Saylor lives in one of them, and she calls herself independent, a rural voter group Republicans have dominated in the past. But the new survey from the Center for Rural Strategies indicates rural independents and moderates are lining up behind Democratic candidates for Congress. Democrats now have a 13 percent margin among the rural voters polled. The war in Iraq was the biggest issue cited in the poll, and it's one of Saylor's top issues, too.
Ms. SAYLOR: I'm not happy with the war. You know, if Bush wants a war, send his family, too. You know, when he gets his family over there, maybe he'll change his attitude.
BERKES: The poll results and the sentiments behind them are very discouraging for Republicans, says Bill Greener, a Republican political consultant who supervised the poll.
Mr. BILL GREENER (Republican Political Consultant): And I think that to pretend otherwise is not helpful. And I think that to do something along the lines of hanging your hat on turnout operations or anything like that also is not helpful.
BERKES: Greener believes Republicans gain when voters focus on terrorism and security, but the poll shows those issues overshadowed by the war and the economy. They were mentioned at Hammond's restaurant by carpenter Bill Austin. He's always voted for Republican and Democrats, but no Republicans get his vote now.
Mr. BILL AUSTIN (Carpenter): I look at the prices of gas. They went up another 20-some cents yesterday for nothing. It's eating everybody's pocketbook. It's costing more for everything.
BERKES: And you mentioned the war as something that's a great concern.
Mr. AUSTIN: Yes. Bring the boys home.
BERKES: Is this a vote against then the Republican leadership?
Mr. AUSTIN: Yes, in general, I would say that. They're not doing their job.
BERKES: Even rural voters more strongly committed to Republican ideals are unenthusiastic about voting Republican now. That's one finding in the survey. Scientist and teacher Brian Cox counts himself as one of the disenchanted, citing the economy, the growing federal budget, and what he calls a general malaise in a party in power too long.
Mr. BRIAN COX (Teacher): Bad things happen. It happened with the Democrats, it will happen with anyone. So actually, divided Congress, I need to have the Republicans looking at the Democrats and the Democrats looking at the Republicans. And we haven't had that.
BERKES: This should make Republican candidates wince, says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who conducted the bipartisan rural poll.
Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): Rural voters tend to be a core electorate for Republicans, and they need their base voters to turn out and turn out big for them if they're going to stay in this race. The fact that rural voters are trending Democratic and we're seeing less enthusiasm among Republicans in rural areas is not good news for Republicans.
BERKES: And it helps explain the dead heat here in Indiana's 9th Congressional District, where incumbent Republican Mike Sodrel is in a rematch with former Democratic Congressman Baron Hill. That race and the new rural poll indicate an ongoing challenge for Republicans, says political scientist Bill Kubik of Indiana's Hanover College.
Professor BILL KUBIK (Hanover College): This district is one that that long-term is perceived as one that's moving in a Republican direction. So the fact that it's backtracked in some ways really sends a message, I think, nationally that the Republican Party's message is not resonating well in Middle America.
BERKES: There's one ray of Republican hope in the poll. Half of those surveyed did not blame the nation's problems on the incumbent member of Congress, and most of the districts surveyed have Republican incumbents. President Bush visits this Indiana district tomorrow to rally Republicans here.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Madison, Indiana.
MONTAGNE: For complete results of the rural poll and for NPR projections, go to npr.org.
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