By Ed Stoddard
Friday, October 27, 2006; 7:34 AM
DALLAS (Reuters) - A new poll shows support for the war in Iraq is slipping among white evangelical Protestants, previously a key pillar of support for President George W. Bush's conduct of the conflict.
The poll is the latest bad domestic news for Bush and the Republicans about Iraq with just 12 days to go to congressional elections in which the Democrats are widely expected to capture control of the House of Representatives.
Conducted by the PEW Research Center, it found that 58 percent of white evangelical Protestants surveyed felt the United States made the right decision in using force in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, below the 71 percent in a previous poll in September.
This compared to little change overall among committed Republicans, with 78 percent saying it was the correct course versus 76 percent in September.
Flagging public support for the war as the death toll among U.S. forces mount in Iraq is one of the main reasons why analysts see Republicans losing House seats on November 7.
Political activists in the evangelical community have been unwavering supporters of the war they see in part as a broader "clash of civilizations." Distaste among their flock for the conflict therefore highlights the depth of its unpopularity.
Scott Keeter of the PEW Research Center said it was hard to say why evangelical support seemed to have fallen so sharply but geography could be one reason.
"Many evangelicals are in the South and the military presence there is quite large and so the impact of the war on local communities is probably greater there," he said.
The PEW poll also found that only 48 percent of white evangelical Protestants now thought the war effort was going very or fairly well, versus 61 percent in September.
The latest poll was conducted nationwide from October 17 to 22. It also found that nationally the Democrats hold a double-digit lead over Republicans heading into the elections.
LEADERS STILL BACK BUSH
Christian conservative leaders still stand behind the president though more moderate denominations have expressed doubts about or opposition to the war.
In his October newsletter, James Dobson of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family offered staunch support for the president on Iraq and the wider war on terror.
"For the first time in the 29-year history of this ministry, I feel I must address the burgeoning threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism," he wrote.
"When it comes to the threat of terror, he (President Bush) gets it," he said. "Mr. Bush has been subjected to incredible criticism, much of it unfair and vicious, for his prosecution of this war. I admire him for standing firm."
Analysts say much of the evangelical leadership has little choice but to stick by the president and the Republicans because they have demonized Democrats and have nowhere else to go.
"Christian conservative leaders who are aligned with the Republican Party are stuck and so they are going to back Bush on the war," said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Jerry Cox, executive director of the conservative Arkansas Family Council, said he felt people just wanted to get the job in Iraq done.
"They just want the war to hurry up and be over with. They view it as just a tough job that needs to be done," he told Reuters by telephone.
(Additional reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock)