At the same time, a narrow majority of citizens continue to believe it was correct to use military force in Iraq. Most Americans also think preemptive war can often or sometimes be justified.
The findings are contained in the latest survey conducted by the Pew Research Center For the People and the Press, a prominent polling firm, and the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent policy institute.
Pew director Andrew Kohut told a news briefing yesterday that the number of Americans approving the way Bush has handled Iraq has dropped to 43 percent from 77 percent in April 2003. But 53 percent of Americans still believe it was the right decision to use force in Iraq despite the difficulties of the past year, Kohut said.
"Support for the war in Iraq has fallen but it is remarkably resilient. Think about all the things that have happened and we still have most people saying we should keep our troops there and half of the public is saying 'it's worth it, or we made the right decision,'" Kohut said.
The survey of more than 2,000 adults nationwide, conducted last month, found that for the first time since the Vietnam War era, national-security and foreign-policy issues are more important than economic matters in a presidential election year. An analysis by the Pew center of its own and other polling data shows the last election year when security issues were rated the most important was 1972.
Some of the findings favor Bush. He is seen as stronger in combating terrorism than Kerry and 60 percent of those polled say the preemptive use of force -- possibly Bush's most controversial foreign-policy innovation -- can at times be justified against countries that may threaten the United States.
But other indicators support Kerry. About two-thirds of those polled are worried about a loss of respect for the United States in the world and see it as a major problem. About 60 percent said the Bush administration is too quick to use force instead of pursuing diplomatic solutions.
Such findings reflect the fears and divisions of Americans across the country, according to Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "People feel the country is in danger. They're divided over how best to respond," he told RFE/RL. "But that sense of danger -- circle the wagons, facing an unprincipled enemy who will stop at nothing -- is very much something that is driving the public both in its specific stands and in the importance it attaches to foreign policy in the election."
The poll found widening gaps between the long-term foreign-policy goals favored by Republicans and Democrats. For example, many more Republicans than Democrats view preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction as a top priority. Democrats assign greater urgency to strengthening the United Nations and dealing with world hunger.
In addition, a large majority of Democrats say Bush is too quick to use force, while a high number of Republicans say the president works hard to find diplomatic solutions.
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Lee Feinstein, who contributed to the survey, told RFE/RL that foreign policy has become a deeply partisan issue in the United States. The divide, he said, pits Democrats who believe America should pursue its goals chiefly through "soft power" -- diplomacy and moral persuasion -- against Republicans who see military force or "hard power" as a guiding policy principle. "It's a debate about soft power versus hard power: Is it better to be loved or feared? And Americans seem to be taking sides," he said.
Despite the different approaches to foreign policy, the poll shows very few Americans support isolationism. Only 9 percent of those polled think the country should play no leadership role in the world.
(The report can be accessed at: http://www.cfr.org/pdf/CFRPEW.pdf)