WASHINGTON -- President Bush's approval rating has improved slightly, but discontent over the war in Iraq, especially among women, is continuing to boost Democratic prospects in the struggle for control of Congress, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
Bush's approval rating edged up to 41 percent, his highest rating in the poll since January. But Democrats held a formidable advantage, 49 percent to 35 percent, when registered voters were asked which party they intend to support in this fall's congressional elections.
The survey suggests an old challenge - the gender gap - could pose a renewed threat to the Republican hold on Congress. While men split about evenly when asked which party they plan to back for Congress in November, women now prefer Democrats by nearly 2-to-1.
Doubts about Iraq appear to be a powerful contributor to that trend; in the survey, women are much less likely than men to say the war has been worth the cost.
"As far as the war goes, we never should have gone in there without United Nations backing," said Kathy Bocklage, a poll respondent and registered Republican from Wayland, N.Y., who said she's planning to support Democrats this fall after voting for Bush in 2004. "Why [Bush] thought the U.S. could finance this alone - it's ludicrous."
But beneath the large Democratic lead on the ballot test for November, the poll offers potential warning signs for the party.
On a wide variety of questions - from satisfaction with Bush's handling of terrorism to the likelihood of progress in Iraq - it shows modest but perceptible movement in the president's direction since the last Times/Bloomberg survey in April. Also, the share of Americans who view the Democratic Party favorably has declined. And creating a check on Bush seemed more important than providing an opportunity for Democrats to many poll respondents who said they intend to back the party's candidates for Congress.
"It's not that I'm for the Democrats specifically," said Carol Shulman, a communications professor from Oxford, Ohio. "I'm for more of a balance of power."
The Times/Bloomberg poll interviewed 1,321 adults, including 1,170 registered voters, between Saturday and Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Even with the recent shifts, the poll documents widespread dissatisfaction with the nation's direction and the course Bush has set.
More than three-fifths of those surveyed said the country is heading in the wrong direction. Just 29 percent said the country is better off because of Bush's policies and "should proceed in the direction he set out," while 61 percent said the nation "needs to move in a new direction."
Bush's 41 percent approval rating represents an increase within the poll's margin of error from his 39 percent showing in April. Similarly, 56 percent of those surveyed disapprove of his performance, virtually unchanged from 57 percent in April. And Bush faces a formidable intensity gap: the share of Americans who strongly disapprove of his performance (40 percent) remains more than double the share who strongly approve (18 percent).
Americans were cautious in their expectations about the implications of the military strike that killed al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 7. Half of those polled predicted it would not effect the Iraqi insurgency, 38 percent said it might increase the violence and just 8 percent said that it would stop the attacks.
But against the backdrop of al-Zarqawi's death, 51 percent of those polled gave Bush positive marks for handling the wider war on terror - an increase of 8 percentage points since April and the first time in any of this year's Times' polls that he received majority support on that question.
Nils Spurkeland, a student at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., is among those impressed with Bush's handling of national security. "I'd say we shouldn't let our guard down, but overall I think the administration has done an excellent job since there have been no major attacks since Sept. 11," he said.
Other results underscore continuing problems for Bush. Only 9 percent said his performance in office has improved their opinion of his credibility; 51 percent said their opinion has diminished; 39 percent said it has not changed.
On a more contemporary question, just 16 percent of voters said they would be more likely to support a congressional candidate Bush supports, while more than twice as many - 36 percent - said they would be less likely. The rest said his endorsement would not be a factor.
"I'm not happy with Bush; I want a counterbalancing force," said Patrick Baker, an independent from Tucson, Ariz. "I think he has put his personal religious beliefs so far ahead of the country that it has made it difficult for him to run the country in the way that it needs to be run."
Still, the survey captures some trends that could undermine the Democratic hopes for a strong showing in November. For instance, slightly more Americans held favorable rather than unfavorable views of congressional Democrats in April's poll; in the new survey, the balance flipped, with the number expressing unfavorable views (36 percent) slightly exceeding those with favorable opinions (34 percent).
"I think the minute Democrats get in, our taxes will go up, and I think our economy will suffer for it," said Robert Clark, a retiree and registered Republican from Fort Payne, Ala.
Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.