WASHINGTON (AP) — Voters began to worry more about their pocketbooks over the last month, even more than about the war in Iraq.
More than half the voters in an ongoing survey for The Associated Press and Yahoo! News now say the economy and health care are extremely important to them personally. They fear they will face unexpected medical expenses, their homes will lose value or mortgage and credit card payments will overwhelm them.
Events, however, can quickly change public opinion. Thursday's assassination of Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto could draw more attention to terrorism and national security, an issue that still ranked highly with the public and which 45 percent of those polled considered extremely important.
This latest AP-Yahoo! News survey of more than 1,800 people by Knowledge Networks offers a unique opportunity to track changes in public attitudes as the presidential campaign unfolds. The first poll was last month and set a base line to measure national sentiment.
In the new results, men and women approaching retirement were especially attentive to the economy and health care, with six out of 10 ranking both issues extremely important. Politically, the attention to such domestic issues hangs darkly over Republicans. Voters say they are far more likely to trust Democrats to handle the economy and health care.
Consider Linda Zimmerman, a 50-year-old sheep farmer from Thurmont, Md. Her daughter and son-in-law are having trouble keeping up with two mortgages on a town house, she said. One street in her neighborhood has five homes for sale, and one has been on the market for two years.
Registered as a Republican, she's ready to reconsider.
"We're Republicans and I'm very unhappy with them, and I've been watching the Democrats," she said. "We did better when (Bill) Clinton was in than we did with Bush. It's just terrible."
The Democratic edge on such issues illustrates the predicament Republicans face going into a presidential election. Iraq doesn't dominate the news as it used to, replaced by headlines about slumping home sales, high gasoline prices and a credit crunch.
The impact of Bhutto's assassination on public opinion depends on whether Americans perceive her death as an added threat to the United States. Terrorism was the only issue polled that Republicans were trusted to handle better than Democrats.
Republican Rudy Giuliani had benefited most from people's fears of terrorism. But over the past month his level of support dropped, even among voters who said terrorism was an important issue. Giuliani is now trying to get some of those voters back, releasing an ad Thursday that uses images of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York.
All in all, though, voters appear to be weighing other issues at least as heavily as the country heads into the first voting of the presidential election.
Financial worries have risen in prominence. Forty-eight percent of those polled said Social Security is extremely important to them, up from 42 percent in November. That's virtually the same as the 46 percent who considered Iraq extremely important.
These new public concerns are reflected on the campaign trail, where candidates are hitting domestic topics hard. There too, Democrats have an edge over Republicans when it comes to connecting with their core voters.
Overall, 42 percent of Democrats are very or extremely satisfied with the amount of attention their favored candidates are giving to the issues that matter most to them. Only 32 percent of Republicans feel that way about their candidates. Of all the candidates, Democrat Barack Obama gets the best rating among his supporters.
Bill Hine, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran from Warrenton, Va., considers himself a "soft Republican" who is partial to John McCain. But the nation's health system needs fixing, he said, and he's not happy with what he's hearing.
"A lot of Republicans are just anti-anything, anti-changing anything, and that's one of the things I'll be looking at," he said.
Six out of 10 people polled said they believe it is at least somewhat likely that the U.S. economy will enter a recession next year. Slightly more — 64 percent — said they worried about a major unexpected medical expense, and 55 percent worried that the value of their stocks and retirement investments would drop.
Forty-four percent said they were concerned that the value of their homes would decrease during the next six months. That sentiment was especially strong in the mountain states.
"Middle class America is being chipped away at," said Edward Lemieux, a 57-year-old pattern maker from North Smithfield, R.I., who plans to support Obama for president.
His view is influenced by the flight of manufacturing jobs from his state, by the "For Sale" signs that outnumber the "Sold" signs on neighborhood lawns and by his mother's health care needs.
"We're all of a sudden becoming a country of rich and poor," he said. "The middle class is eroding."
Despite those worries, respondents have grown slightly more optimistic about the direction of the nation during the past month. Nearly three out of 10 say the country is on the right path, compared with 24 percent last month. This uptick in the national mood is evident in both parties, though it's much stronger among Republicans. Still, more than seven out of 10 said they believe the U.S. is headed down the wrong track.
Interest in immigration — a major issue in the Republican presidential contest — remained the same as last month, with 37 percent saying it was an extremely important issue. But for all the candidates' efforts to distinguish themselves on that issue, the poll found that none of the leading contenders holds an advantage among Republicans who feel most strongly about immigration.
Sentiments on health care and the economy could make a difference in the Democratic contest.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards supporters have much stronger feelings about the economy and Social Security than Obama voters. Edwards has staked his campaign on a message of economic populism, while Clinton draws 40 percent of her support from people with household incomes of less than $25,000, far more than her rivals.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards have been feuding over who would provide the most comprehensive health care plan.
Nearly two-thirds of voters polled said the United States should adopt a universal health insurance program "in which everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that is run by the government and financed by taxpayers." Fewer, but still a majority at 54 percent, said they supported a single-payer system whereby all Americans would get their health insurance through a taxpayer-financed government plan.
Lynn Haynes, 42, of Huntington, W.Va., works in the state government's welfare department where she sees clients who can't afford health care. What's more, she has a 35-year-old sister who is developmentally delayed and "falls into the cracks" of government assistance programs. She's a registered Republican, likes Giuliani but supports universal health care and is giving Democrats a hard look.
"I see too many people at work especially who just don't get any health care," Haynes said. "I look at what they get for retirement and Social Security, and I don't see how they live on that and afford their prescriptions."
The survey of 1,821 adults was conducted from Dec. 14-20, and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 847 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.4 points, and 655 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 points.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and Associated Press Writer Christine Simmons contributed to this report.